Study reveals dilemma faced by unemployed Christians, especially those who are rural poor with Dalit backgrounds
Indian laborers are seen here at a construction site in New Delhi in this file image. (Photo by Money Sharma/AFP)
Teresa Massi, a roadside fruit seller in India’s Uttar Pradesh state, says the most excruciating decision she has ever taken was forcing her son to drop out of eighth grade at the age of 13.
The 47-year-old Christian woman, who comes from the socially poor Dalit ethnic group, was struck by abject poverty after her husband died of liver disease. Jacob is the eldest of her three children and she needed him to make a life-changing sacrifice.
“No one except God was there to help me. I gathered the courage to ask Jacob to abandon his studies and start earning. That was a real tough call to make but he obliged,” Massi told ucanews.com.
At that time Jacob aspired to become a government teacher. Now 23, he makes a living by painting public walls.
“Forget about becoming a teacher. He couldn’t even get a low-level government job last year. There were hundreds of other applicants who were more qualified than my son,” says Massi.
Her family’s predicament is not unique but is in line with an unemployment trend in India that was reflected in a government survey presented to the national parliament on June 27.
Among all religious groupings, Christian males have the highest unemployment rates, according to the Periodic Labor Force Survey 2017-18.
Unemployed Christians stood at 6.9 percent in rural communities, while the percentage was only 5.7 for Hindus and 6.7 for Muslims. More Christians were unemployed in cities, close to 8.8 percent, said the data presented by Federal Minister of Minority Affairs, Mukhtar Abbas Naqvi.
The survey findings must act as a wake-up call for the Church in India to empower poor Christians, says Vijayesh Lal, General Secretary of the Evangelical Fellowship of India.
“We knew that the Christian community was by and large a poor community, but the government figures shocked us,” Lal told ucanews.com.
Church leaders had not realized that Christians were enduring such dismal lifestyles. “The Church has to introspect and look into how to empower our own,” he said.
Independent research also confirms the level of poverty among Christians, especially among the rural poor with Dalit backgrounds.
The fact that Dalit Christian households engaged in casual labor and self-employment “showed a higher incidence of poverty in urban India as compared to other Christian groups,” according to research by Sobin George of the Indian Institute of Dalit Studies.
“Interestingly, contrary to the general trend, incidence of poverty was more among households of self-employed in agriculture, other laborers and self-employed in non-agriculture among Dalit Christians in rural areas,” said the study.
Lal said that for the past 15 years Christian groups had been demanding the government appoint a committee to study the status of the Christian community and examine their economic and social status.
Christians of Dalit origin are denied statutory social benefits given for the social advancement of Dalit people on the grounds that Christianity has no caste. The benefits include concessions on education fees and prioritization for government jobs.
Unemployment among Christians should prod Churches to devise remedial measures, according to Joseph Dias of Mumbai’s Catholic Secular Forum.
“Christian groups across India have been running hospitals, livelihood generation programs and other socials services for non-Christians,” said Dias. “It is time that we prioritize poor Christians as they deserve our services more than anyone else.”
He said most of the government funds allotted for religious minorities go to empower the Muslim community, so Christian leaders need to work harder to secure government benefits for their people, such as scholarship assistance for the poor.
“But unfortunately, the government and other political groups focus on the Muslim community looking for their votes,” Dias said. “Christians are negligible in elections, but Muslims are decisive in several states … that’s why a major chunk of funds goes to them.”
Christians account for 29 million — or just 2.3 percent — of India’s 1.3 billion people, while Muslims, who number 172 million, are the largest minority group politically influential in elections.
Some 60 percent of Indian Christians come from socially and economically poor Dalit and tribal communities and mostly live in the villages of northern India, church sources confirm.
Minority groups like Christians and Muslims are given special grants by the government to pursue higher studies but poor Christians are unaware that such schemes even exist, Christian leaders said.
Despite the government’s good intentions, bureaucracy delays the awarding of such grants, said Christian student Alex Dislava, who is pursuing a postgraduate course in modern Indian history at Delhi University and himself applied for a scholarship.
“There is a plethora of formalities that consume a lot of time and if you are courageous enough to complete all the requisites, you are asked to wait for months. That’s how it goes,” Dislava said.
The 26-year-old says scholarship schemes intended for Christians are seldom implemented as they are “treated in the most casual manner” by officials.
Neither the government nor Christian leadership pays any attention to the difficulties facing young Christian students or those seeking employment.
“Christians, particularly in rural India, are the most neglected lot. No one bothers about their social and economic status,” Dislava said.
Delhi Archdiocese spokesman Father Savarimuthu Shankar agreed that Christian groups are not able to help as much as they should.
“There needs to be a proper road map so that Christian students are properly prepared and imparted various skills besides taking care of their financial needs,” Father Shankar told ucanews.com. “If we continue to remain in a slumber, the situation could turn catastrophic.”
As there is no end in sight for the plight of young Christians, people like Massi will continue to be forced to order their children to drop out of school to work and earn a crust.
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