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November 22, 2014

Minorities at the Margins

Poverty among urban Muslims is
13% higher than India's national average

By Abdul Shaban

While increased social exclusion and religious polarisation are pushing Muslims to urban areas, poverty amongst urban Muslims is 13-16% higher than the national average. In the western and northern states in particular, communalised state machineries and politics act as barriers to the economic and social mobility of Muslims. Malegaon, Mumbra and Bhiwandi in Maharashtra illustrate how poverty is concentrated and perpetuated amongst urban MuslimsTable 1F

Muslims in India suffer acute poverty and marginalisation. Relative poverty in the community in urban areas since 1993-94 has increased mainly in the western and northern states of the country, while in the southern states it has declined. Western states also manifest higher socio-spatial exclusion of the community, with the community largely concentrated in poverty-ridden small and medium towns such as Malegaon, Mumbra and Bhiwandi in Maharashtra, or marginalised areas of the large cities.

Historically, socio-cultural diversity has been India's unique feature. Of late, this diversity has also created many social ruptures. In recent decades, political formations have used or exploited existing or manufactured faultlines between the communities as tools to garner votes. This has intensified differences between communities, especially along caste and religious lines. Though bridging the gaps in development of different social groups has been one of the primary objectives of national planning and policy-making, differences between the two major religious communities of the country -- Hindus and Muslims -- have been reinforced over the years to such an extent that even the state is unable to effectively mobilise its bureaucracy and police to deliver development and protection to Muslims on an equal basis. This is well reflected in the fact that while the country has been able to initiate and sustain development policies along caste and regional lines, it has largely failed to safeguard the interests of Muslims, a deprived religious community that has been ignored or received less attention in the dominant and complex matrix of class, caste and region.

Over the years, India's Muslims have undergone a relative deterioration in their socio-economic situation and physical safety. Although they remain rooted to their regional culture and caste-class nexus, their religious identity is reified, which de-aligns or works against their effective and meaningful relationship with state machineries and developmental policies.

Muslims, at 13.4% of the total population, constitute the largest religious minority group in the country (Census of India 2001). Geographically, this religious community is relatively more concentrated in urban areas and also in particular states. They are mostly concentrated in Jammu & Kashmir (67% of the total population of the state) Assam (30.9%), West Bengal (25.2%), Kerala (24.7%), Uttar Pradesh (18.2%) and Bihar (15.9%). In fact, three states -- Uttar Pradesh (31 million), West Bengal (20 million) and Bihar (14 million) -- together constitute 47% of the total Muslim population in the country.Table 2F

A distinctive feature of the Muslim community has been the level of urbanisation of the community, which is higher than for the total population. In 2001, 35.7% of the Muslim population was urban compared to 27.8% of the overall population. In states like Tamil Nadu, Maharashtra, Karnataka, Andhra Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh, Gujarat and Chhattisgarh, a majority of Muslims live in urban areas. However, as shown below, this urbanisation of Muslims is largely of a subsistence nature, and is hardly related to any significant improvement in the quality of their lives.

A large share of the Muslim population in India lives in adverse economic situations. In rural areas they have higher landlessness and a majority of those owning land have lower size of landholding (NSSO 2007; Shaban 2011). The lower educational attainments in comparison to other socio-religious groups (Government of India 2006: 64) and prejudices against the community mar the aspirations of even the highly educated in the community. Among others, the aspiration for better wages and employment forces them to migrate to urban centres in relatively greater proportion to their number. The increased religious polarisation of communities in the rural areas of many states and fear of riots also act as push factors for Muslims to migrate to urban areas. In urban areas, Muslims are further confronted with strong and intensified forms of socially exclusionary practices and violence, leading to their concentration in a few towns or in marginal and peripheral areas within a large town (Shaban 2010; Robinson 2005; Masselos 1994; Phadke 2007). The section of Muslims living in older parts of towns/cities also finds it difficult to move to newly developed areas due to the fear of riots, lack of affordability due to rising house prices, and availability of housing finance (Shaban 2010). The consequence is that in urban areas a large section of the Muslim population lives in slums and shanties, or dilapidated older parts of towns/cities.

Maharashtra is a typical example of this kind of distribution of Muslim population. More than 70% of the Muslim population in the state lives in urban areas but is concentrated either in specific marginal parts of bigger towns or in Muslim-concentrated small and medium towns such as Malegaon, Bhiwandi, Mumbra, etc.

The present paper attempts to examine poverty among Muslims in urban areas in the country and in some selected small and medium towns of Maharashtra. I first examine poverty at the national level among different religious groups and then discuss poverty among Muslims in the towns of Malegaon and Mumbra, in Maharashtra.

Available data since 1993-94 shows that Muslims have been plagued by poverty and penury; at the national level poverty is highest among Muslims after the Buddhists who include a large share of dalit (scheduled caste) populations. At the aggregate level (rural + urban), poverty among Muslims has been higher by about 6 percentage points over the years (Table 1). But it is in urban areas that poverty pervades the lives of Muslims in a significant way. Whereas, on an average, poverty among Muslims in rural areas has been around 3% higher than the national average, it has been higher than 13-16% over the years 1993-94 to 2009-10 in urban areas. In fact, in 2004-05 and 2009-10, Muslims had the highest level of poverty among all religious communities living in urban areas. Compared to the Muslim minorities, Jains and Sikhs have significantly higher standards of living and less poverty.

Maharashtra is one of the Indian states where there has been a higher concentration of poverty among Muslims -- more than 12% above the state's average poverty rate (Table 2). In 2009-10, the highest concentration of poverty among Muslims in urban areas was in Bihar (56.5%), followed by Assam (52.7%), and Uttar Pradesh (49.5%). Poverty among Muslims in urban centres in Maharashtra was about 31% in the same year. However, there are differential levels of development among the states, and states like Assam, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh also have higher overall poverty rates. In comparison to these states, those from western and southern India are more developed and have lower overall poverty rates. It is therefore important to compare the poverty rate differences between Muslims and overall poverty in respective states of the country.

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