Why has minority-dominated Mewat remained the most backward district of India, from UPA to NDA?

Despite a decade of implementation of district development programmes, residents of Mewat are struggling to access basic facilities such as clean drinking water, monthly supply of ration, and pensions. Anindito Mukherjee/REUTERS
25 September, 2018

In April 2018, Niti Aayog identified Mewat, a district in the National Capital Region that was renamed Nuh two years ago, the most backward district of India. For the past ten years, both BJP- and Congress-led governments have allotted crores of funds on welfare programmes to “uplift” the district. But these programmes appear to have had negligible impact. In the Niti Aayog report, 101 districts were assessed on 49 development indicators such as health, education, agriculture, financial inclusion, skill development, and basic infrastructure, and Nuh scored 26 percent—the lowest across the country.

I witnessed the extent of Nuh’s socio-economic backwardness during my visits to villages in two taluks of the district—Nuh Rural and Punhana. Despite a decade of implementation of district development programmes, the residents of these villages are struggling to access basic facilities such as clean drinking water, monthly supply of ration, and pensions. It is evident that the government programmes to uplift the region have failed, not only because of their inefficient implementation, but more importantly, due to a fundamentally flawed approach to address the socio-economic backwardness in Nuh.

In 2008, Nuh was one of the 90 districts selected for the Multi-Sectoral Development Programme, or MSDP, which was conceived as a response to the findings of the Sachar Committee that there were large inequalities in education, employment and earnings between Indian Muslims and other demographic groups. The MSDP aimed to develop districts with a concentration of minorities that were socio-economically backward. Around 79 percent of Nuh’s population comprises Muslims, and a majority of them are Meo-Muslims—a minority community that follows parts of both Islamic and Hindu customs. Funds worth Rs 4043.61 lakh were sanctioned for Nuh under the 11th Five-Year Plan. The 12th Five-Year Plan (2012–17) approved Rs 6531.90 for the district under MSDP, which was renamed as the Pradhan Mantri Jan Vikas Karyakram under the current regime.

The minority affairs ministry does not have data on the total number of minority families, in Nuh and across the country, living below poverty line or those benefited by these projects. While it is impossible to comprehensively analyse the impact the welfare schemes have had on minorities, the available data is sufficient to conclude that it has been negligible. A report by the parliamentary standing committee on social justice and empowerment published in August this year is telling of this lack of impact. In its concluding remarks, the report notes, “The Committee find that the NITI AAYOG has declared 20 Most Backward Districts of the country which includes 11 Muslim Concentration Districts too. The Committee are shocked to note that these 11 Districts were also included in the list of 90 MCDs under MsDP since it was initially launched in 2008- 2009 and they still exist in 308 districts of minority concentration areas.” There has also been no meeting under the chairmanship of the cabinet secretary to discuss the Prime Minister’s 15 Point Programme for Welfare of Minorities, an umbrella development programme initiated in 2005, in the last four years.

Nuh lies 57 kilometers away from Gurugram, a financial and industrial hub in southern Haryana, and is a three-hour drive away from the national capital. Gurugram has the third-highest per capita income in India. On the journey from Delhi to Nuh, through Gurugram, as the cityscape gives way to large swathes of green fields and settlements of farm workers and daily wage labourers, the differences between them become evident.

The first village I visited was Otha, in the Punhana taluk. When I reached, the sarpanch and around 20 villagers had gathered near a locked and abandoned single-storey structure. Pointing to the dilapidated building, Muhammad Rizwan, the village’s sarpanch, told me, “This is our village office. It has been lying in this condition for the last 12 years. We do official work from available space in schools and other buildings here.” A little ahead of the non-functional panchayat office lay a muddy dirt track that led to mustard and jute farms. “Most people in this area use this path to go to the farms and nearby villages. As soon as it rains, this whole place becomes waterlogged,” Aslam Khan, a 67-year-old labourer who works on a farm, said. “We can’t even afford to lose a day’s wage to pursue these issues. If any government officials visit us, we could tell them about our problems, but no one ever comes here.” Almost every spot I visited in the village, a crowd gathered to tell me their grievances.

Across the panchayat building, stood a small water pumping station surrounded by a small compound wall. “Teen saal se ismein pani nahi aa raha hai. Mana kar rakha hai. Yeh toh afsaron ki masti hai,” (There has been no water coming to this for the past three years. They have told us to not use it. These are the games officers play,) Arman Khan, a 30-year-old resident of the village, told me. Residents claimed that despite repeatedly raising the issue of water scarcity with the panchayat, as well as block- and taluk-level offices, nothing has been done to resolve it. Instead, they are compelled to rely on water from open wells, tube-wells and untreated sources such as tanks and ponds.

The water scarcity was prevalent across the district. According to a 2015 study sponsored by Niti Aayog, only 23 percent of houses had a water source within the premise, compared to the national average of 47 percent. This is despite the National Rural Drinking Water Programme—a scheme to provide sustainable water resource under the 15-Point Programme. In a nearby village in Punhana taluk, I saw a group of 15 women and young girls gathered around an open well to fetch water. The well had no safety walls and fetching water with a rope and bucket from 20-feet below looked like a precarious job. “Most of us walk around one kilometer to fetch water from this well, that too four-five times every day. It is difficult for us, but nobody cares about our problems,” Aneesa, a 25-year-old resident of the village, told me.

In Bai ka Danda, another village in Punhana, the district’s backwardness manifested itself in different daily struggles. Azu Muhammed, a 70-year-old farm labourer in in the village, told me his income was hardly enough to survive. He and his elder brother have not received pension for senior citizens. Both of them took out their identity cards, including their Aadhaar card and driving license, and Mohammad said, “See, the government had issued these ID cards. Now they are saying this is not enough to get our pension.”

Though Muhammed’s family is below the poverty line, they have not received any form of support from the government—neither have several others in the village. As per the official government schemes, however, the family ought to have been a beneficiary of the Swarnajayanti Gram Swarozgar Yojana, a self-employment programme that provides bank credit and government subsidy. Even according to Otha’s sarpanch Rizwan, most people in the village belong to BPL category, but cannot get enrolled. “Sometimes, the officials say that you have to wait for the enrolment process, then they would say that it has been cancelled,” he said.

Rizwan also said that only 30-percent of the BPL villagers in Otha had access to the public distribution system. In Marora village in Nuh Rural taluk,Hiri, an 80-year-old resident of said, “We do not receive ration supply for our children because the officials tell us that they cannot issue ration cards to minors.” She added that her children had not been accounted for in her ration card. “So we don’t get enough food to feed us all.”

Employment opportunities are also limited in Nuh. Illiteracy, lack of facilities for skill development and the non-remunerative nature of farm labour in Nuh has resulted in a situation where only 27 percent of the district’s employable population was engaged in work in 2015. Mustaqeem, a 35-year-old resident of Bai ka Danda, recounted why he became a part time driver: “I dropped out of school after ninth standard when my father passed away. There was no opportunity here to learn any other skill.” While skill development for better job opportunities is one of the schemes under the 15-Point Programme, the only skill-development centres in Haryana are in Ambala and Yamunanagar, both more than 340 kilometres away from Nuh.

Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi, the union minister of minority affairs, has repeatedly claimed that the central government has provided scholarships to over 2.5 croreminority students. But according to the 53rd report of the standing committee on social justice and empowerment, released in March this year, around 85 lakh students from minority communities have been left out of the Maulana Azad National Fellowship, which offers pre-matric, post-matric and merit-cum-means based scholarship schemes. “Some of the students get [the scholarship], some don’t,” Sabroom, a tenth-standard student from Malab village, in Nuh Rural taluk, told me. “The school authorities don’t explain why some of the students don’t get scholarships.” Rizwan told me that Otha only has one high school with just eight teachers and out of the eight, half are guest teachers. “The midday meal given to the kids are of very low quality,” he added.

The Sachar Committee report discusses the importance of creating employment for the Muslim community. “It is imperative to increase the employment share of Muslims particularly in contexts where there is a great deal of public dealing,” it notes. “Their public visibility will endow the larger Muslim community with a sense of confidence and involvement and help them in accessing these facilities in larger numbers and greater proportion.” This remains unresolved as crucial sectors such as agriculture, commerce and industry, trade and small and medium enterprises are left out of the 15-Point Programme.

The programme earmarks 15 percent of its total allocation for the welfare of minorities, and includes flagship schemes under eleven union ministries to achieve this goal. But according to Jawed Alam Khan, a researcher with the public-policy think-tank Centre for Budget and Governance Accountability, the programme has not yielded results. “Even after ten years of implementation of 15 PP, the minorities have not been given a fair share in recruitment or the promised 15 per cent annual priority sector lending by the Department of Financial Services.”

Numerous studies by government-appointed committees and research bodies show that the government’s welfare policies for Nuh specifically, and backward districts generally, suffer from serious flaws with respect to its budgetary allocation, planning, implementation as well as the analyses of its results. When asked if she was aware of any of these policies, Ameena Begum, a 50 year old from Malab, said, “No one ever mentioned this to me.” In most of my conversations with people from the district, it became clear that the local governing bodies seem to be inaccessible and lack of information leaves them out of the purview of welfare schemes.

Moreover, both the MSDP and the 15-Point Programme establish state- and district-level committees that oversee their implementation, but these bodies are often inefficient, or even non-existent. The August standing committee report notes that members of these overseeing committees were “not aware of their membership of such State or District Level Committees.” The March report, too, states that the committee was “shocked to know that there has been no meeting under the chairmanship of cabinet secretary in the last four years for 15-PP.”

I tried to contact Zakir Hussain, the member of legislative assembly from the Indian National Lok Dal, who represents the Nuh constituency, several times for a comment. But he did not respond to phone calls or subsequent text messages.

The researchers Christophe Jaffrelot and Kalaiyarasan argue that the fundamental concern with these programmes and their approach to socio-economic backwardness is that it “continues to focus on districts, when the relevant units of analysis are communities.” Nuh appears to be a testament to this distinction— as the 2015 study sponsored by NitiAayog notes, 68 percent of the population of regions in the district that are performing better on parameters of development are Hindus.

According to the India Human Development Surveys of 2004–05 and 2011–12, the socio-economic condition of the Muslim community has been deteriorating rapidly. In 2007, the National Commission for Religious and Linguistic Minorities, recommended introducing “positive discrimination policies for the minorities which were losing ground.” But the policy-makers determining the government expenditure do not appear to recognise this concern. According to the March standing committee report, while allocation of funds to the minority affairs ministry has increased, the total utilisation of these funds has dropped from 98 percent in 2014–15 to 66 percent as on 20 February 2018. Moreover, while 21 percent of the total population belongs to minority communities, only 0.49 percent of the total budget was allocated for them in 2016–2017. A 2018 study supported by Dartmouth College has identified Muslims as the “least upwardly [inter-generationally] mobile group in India”—the community has experienced the least change of economic status across generations.

According to Jawed Khan, grass-root level planning is essential to ensure that the needs of the communities are addressed. He said the planning has to be done at the block and district level, with the preparation of detailed project reports, which should then be vetted by the state government and finally approved by the minority affairs ministry. But the local bodies do not have the capacity to that. “After the completion of the 12th Five-Year Plan, the government has not granted funds for hiring block-level facilitators,” Khan said. “In most states, the district minority welfare offices do not have enough staff. Without adequate staff, the assessment of needs, based on which the schemes have to designed, is not possible.”

The central governments led by both the Congress and BJP have ignored the recommendations of various committees set up to study policies for minority communities. In 2006, the Sachar Committee strongly recommended introducing “policies to deal with the relative deprivation of the Muslims in the country should sharply focus on inclusive development.”

The parliamentary committee stated in its August 2018 report, “The Ministry have revised the Scheme many times with some modifications here and there but the socio-economic condition of the Minorities has not changed much.” “We are tired of running around for water,” Hajra Begum, a 62-year-old resident of Bai kaDanda, told me. “We do back-breaking jobs to survive every day. You are saying government has been giving money to develop Nuh. But we don’t see it. Where is it all going?”