The government and the Church has some answering to do following the publication last month of official data which shows that Dalit and tribal Christians who live in villages in the hinterland top the list of the country’s ranks of unemployed. The urban-rural divide in economic standards further compounds the issue.
And this comes when even Muslims, believed to be one of the most economically disempowered religious group in India, show an improvement in their employment figures, both in villages and in towns.
The National Sample Survey published its employment reports based on a data collection exercise conducted in 2009-10 across the country. The national census is yet to publish detailed and desegregated figures on the absolute numbers of religious minorities in India . The figures of religious minorities are among the last analyses from the decadal census operations, as governments feel data on growth of religion, specially of Muslims, could have political ramifications or even law and order problems if released early because of India’s highly polarized polity.
The perceived rapid growth in the Muslim population has been made a political issue by Hindu majority political groups who see this as a threat to national security and the so called “Indian ethos.”
For the record, in rural areas, unemployment was highest among Christians at 3.9 percent. However, it was a decline from 4.4 percent in 2004-05. In contrast, in urban areas, the unemployment rate fell by 5.7 percentage points from 8.6 percent in 2004-05 to 2.9 percent in 2009-10.
In comparison, joblessness showed a downward trend for Muslims in both urban and rural areas. The rate declined from 2.3 percent in 2004-05 to 1.9 percent in 2009-10 among Muslims living in villages, says the National Survey Organisation, which conducts these studies.
In cities and towns, the unemployment rate among Muslims fell from 4.1 percent to 3.2 percent during the five-year period. Among rural Sikhs, where the upper caste Jat community has huge lands, the rate declined sharply from 3.5 percdnt to 2.4 percent during the period. The majority Hindu community had a stable unemployment rate at 1.5 percent in rural areas during the five-year period while in urban India, the rate fell from 4.4 percent to 3.4 percent. Interestingly, unemployment among Muslims in both rural and urban areas is falling.
The survey found that self-employment was the mainstay for all religious groups in rural areas. The major source of earning from self-employment in agriculture was the highest among Sikhs (about 36 percent), but Muslims topped the chart in the category of rural workers. In urban India, the proportion of households with the major source of earning listed as self-employment was highest for Muslims (46 percent). The major source of earning from regular wage/salaried was the highest for Christian households (43 percent) in urban areas.
An analysis of the data throws light on the socio-economic situation of Christians. Barring perhaps the major urban centres and areas where Christians are either owners of rubber and coffee plantations, commercial enterprises or other major businesses, the rest have to seek a livelihood in general employment in sundry jobs in commercial and services sectors. The rich therefore are concentrated in cities and regions such as Mumbai, or own lands in Kerala, parts of Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Hyderabad and some districts in Andhra.
But the bulk of Indian Christianity ekes out a living as marginal farmers, landless laborers, fishermen and boatmen, and in petty jobs. They are mostly from the Dalit and tribal communities. They constitute the majority Christian communities in Jharkhand, Chhattisgarh, Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, The Udaipur-Banswara areas of Rajasthan, Dangs in Gujarat, parts of the Northeast and vast areas in Andhra Pradesh and Tamil Nadu.
Interestingly, with Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, these areas are also ones with large numbers of people under the poverty line. However, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh do no have sizable Christian populations.
The Indian government has not been able to target areas with significant Christian populations for development effort in a systematic manner because the concentrations of this minority community are not at the threshold level where minority programs become applicable. However, Muslim-dominated districts are specially targetted for development measures by the government under various statutory and Planning Commission programmes.
With little land of their own, the Christian tribals and Dalits have little recourse but to seek employment in agriculture, small businesses or migrate to urban areas. Perhaps half a million young women from Jharkhand and Orissa, for instance, work as domestic laborers in the metropolitan cities, and many of them are targets of sexual and other abuse. Almost all are underpaid.
Christian activists have for many years demanded that the government conducted a through investigation of the socio-economic condition of the community in India to get a better understanding of the Dalit, tribal and landless Christians. The government did constitute such a committee under Justice Rajinder Sachar to assess the economic and social situation of the Muslims.
The Sachar report has since then become the foundation of a slew of development programmes for the Muslim community, benefitting tens of millions of people. Dalit and tribal Chrisians are still waiting for a investigation of their plight.
John Dayal is the general secretary of the All India Christian Council and a member of the Indian government’s National Integration Council