On the Margins: Muslims in a State of Socio-economic Decline
ABUSALEH SHARIFF | Oct 22, 2004
Census 2001 has generated more heat than light on the condition of Muslims in India. Population counts according to religious identities have been regularly published by the census since Independence and even earlier. This year, the unadjusted population counts were liberally used to compute growth rates that sparked off ill-informed reactions on the Muslim community. However, demographic data points to a disturbing decline in the economic profile of Muslims and their marginalisation from the development process.
Muslims in the year 2001 constituted 13.4 per cent of India's population — 12 per cent in rural parts, but a relatively higher share of 17.3 per cent in urban areas. Adjusted for exclusion of Assam in 1981 and Jammu & Kashmir in the 1991 census, respectively, the decadal growth rate of Indian Muslim population came down 3.6 points, from 32.9 per cent between 1981-91 to 29.3 per cent between 1991-2001. These rates for Hindus have been 22.8 per cent and 20 per cent, respectively — a 2.8 points decline, which is lower than that for the Muslims. The rate of decline has been considerably large for Muslims, suggesting that growth rates of Muslims and Hindus would converge over time. The process will be hastened with the spread of mass education especially among women and girls, and a sustained reduction in poverty across all population groups.
While religiosity influences the living patterns of sizable segments of citizens, it does not significantly impact the fertility behaviour of Indian Muslims. The use of modern methods of contraception among Muslims has been on the increase in recent years and is nearing 50 per cent. Over 20 million Muslim couples practice modern contraception; this number will grow if quality reproductive healthcare services are made accessible to Muslim couples. However, the relatively higher incidence of poverty and a growing gap in literacy between the Muslim and Hindu women at younger ages are causes of worry, as this could restrict the decline in Muslim fertility. Research worldwide has established that improvement in female education, associated with declines in poverty levels, will facilitate a faster decline in human fertility and improvement in life expectancy.
Over 60 per cent of the Muslim population in India lives in five states — Uttar Pradesh, West Bengal, Bihar, Maharashtra and Assam. Of this, 36 per cent stays in urban India, while urban Hindus constitute 26 per cent of all Hindus. However, it appears that the Muslims are unable to extract any benefit from the concentration of institutional and infrastructural facilities in urban areas. Data from the NSSO's 50th and 55th round suggest that over 40 per cent of Muslims in the urban areas live in poorest 'monthly per capita expenditure class' (MPCE) quintile compared with less than 22 per cent in the case of Hindus. The fact that the situation has worsened for Muslims in urban areas, as only 30 per cent Muslims were in this quintile in 1993-94, is a pointer to their decline in living standards over time. A deeper analysis suggests that the middle class is absent among Muslims, even with the Indian middle class growing at a faster pace during the last decade or so.
While Muslims in 1999-2000 were only a shade more illiterate in rural areas (48 per cent, against 44 per cent of the Hindus), this gap is much wider today — 30 per cent versus only 19 per cent among Hindus in urban areas. Improvements in general literacy conditions among Muslims have been marginal compared to Hindus and other communities. But what is startling is the increase in illiteracy among younger Muslim women. The literacy levels of Hindu and Muslim women were uniform through the 50s, 60s, 70s and even the 80s, but by 2001 the differentials among younger women had widened substantially. Besides, enrolment rates of Muslim girls fell steeply (not increased) especially during the decade of the 1990s and thereafter. What's worse is that the differential with respect to Muslim women increased at higher levels of education, such as completed middle level, matriculation, graduate, postgraduate and high technical level education. These trends are also applicable to the education attainments of Muslim men, but at higher literacy levels.
However, everything is not gloomy for Muslims. They enjoy a better sex ratio in both urban and rural areas compared to Hindus. The percentage of women with anaemia is slightly lower among Muslims (50 per cent) compared to Hindus (52 per cent). Interestingly, Muslims have a lower infant mortality rate than Hindus, a higher proportion of the population in the age group less than 15 years in both rural and urban India compared to Hindus and Christians, and the lowest share of the aged population (60 years or more). The proportion of Muslim population in age group '30 years and more' is less than the other groups. This gives a very young look to the Muslim population in India.
Young Muslims are a critical component in India's socio-economic profile. They need an enabling environment for access to basic and technical education, with opportunities to improve their economic standing. Concerted efforts should emanate from the Muslim community, while governments do their bit. The time is ripe for the UPA government to bring out a White Paper on the status of Muslims in India, and link its efforts with internationally recognised welfare objectives, such as those articulated in the UN's Millennium Development Goals declaration.