Poverty Alleviation: A must for minorities

Indian Muslims1

Alleviation of Poverty-I

The present understanding of ‘education’ – both of the community and its leadership – is that of the model exemplified by the Aligarh Movement of Sir Syed Ahmed Khan. The concern of Sir Syed was focused on the remnants of the Muslim ruling class and landed gentry who had somehow escaped the death and destruction unleashed by the new rulers of India, in the aftermath of the failed First War of Independence in 1857. Those remnants had been turned into ‘personae non grata’ by them.

Nevertheless the new British rulers needed workers and officers who would be faithful to them as well as be knowledgeable about their new administrative and military systems. The concurrent reality, however, was that they were getting such men from the groups who had made their choice to side with them some decades ago and had stayed with them during the 1857 war as well.

Sir Syed saw all this. His sense of loss and helplessness can be gauged by what he once said: “The destruction of my community turned my hair white overnight!”

What Sir Syed did in order to pull up his community from the depths of degradation and deprivation is known to every student of modern Indian history. On one hand he wrote his famous book, Asbab e Baghawat e Hind (Causes of Indian Revolt) in which he tried to convince the new rulers that Muslims were not the only group responsible for 1857; they themselves were also to blame and that if they now adopted a large hearted conciliatory approach towards them, they would not be disappointed.

On the other hand he told the Muslims to turn away from their past attitudes and to single-mindedly devote themselves to ‘education’ – of a new kind too – so that they could become a part of the new system of administration set up by the British thus ensuring for themselves a semblance of acceptance and wellbeing in the new milieu.

Thirdly, Sir Syed made tremendous efforts to establish the Mohammadan Anglo-Oriental College at Aligarh so that the Muslim community could obtain that kind of education which he considered essential as well as beneficial for it.

Sir Syed was eminently successful on all the three fronts. Young Muslim men did begin to get accepted in the corridors of power in British India once they had qualified from Anglo-Oriental College. This acceptance reached a high water mark when the Indian National Congress first began to ask for ‘Home Rule’ and later, under the passionate influence of the Ali brothers, for ‘Total Independence’.


The challenge for the north Indian Muslim leadership after independence in 1947, and more so today, was and is that the composition of the Muslim community then and now is different from that in the aftermath of 1857.

Members of the civil services, the defence services, the business elite and the landed aristocracy of the North Indian Muslim community largely left for Pakistan after independence. Those from among the last named group who did not do so, were rendered a shadow of their former selves as regards their economic and political clout, as a result of the ‘abolition of zamindari’. This is, of course, not to say that the objectionable aspects of the relationship between the farmers and their landlords could be condoned.

Today, the vast majority of North Indian Muslims are poor as they are below the poverty line, and only marginally less poor even when they are above that line. The problems of today’s Muslims are thus different from those of the post-1857 Muslims.

Second, the post-independence leadership of the North Indian Muslims did not succeed in shielding itself and the community from being ‘solely’ blamed for partition. Third, it was not able to reach any such accommodation with any government of the day as would protect the Muslim masses from recurring riots on one hand, and allow the educated from among them to gain reasonable, if not proportional, representation in the civil, the police and the military services on the other.


The Annual Reports of some of the good schools set up and run under the patronage and management of well respected social and educational activists showed till 2008 that about 60% of their students leave school between 5th. and 7th. standards and another 20% between 7th. and 9th. standards.

The result is that the buildings, the furniture, the laboratories, the playgrounds and all other inputs provided for every hundred children entering the school are used by a much lower number from 5th. standard onwards. It is reliably learnt that the situation is generally the same in all the Muslim schools of UP. It would be the same situation in other north Indian states as well. This means that there is a wastage of back breaking effort, precious time and costly resources invested by the community in setting up these schools and yet, the education of an average of about 70% of the students stops at a level well below high school. These drop-outs are the children then, who we see working in homes, eateries, cycle, auto repair shops and factories in the cities and towns of North India.

It is a moot question as to how many of the remaining students who complete high school, do so with such proficiency as to aim or hope to enter the portals of institutions of higher education.


The conclusion that before a poor North Indian Muslim family rises well above its present level of poverty, its children have to leave school and begin work to help their parents look after their families as soon as they acquire enough bodily strength to do so, is there for all to see.Thus the poverty of the family prevents acquisition of education by a child of average intelligence up to any useful or enlightening level, thus imprisoning the child for whole life in a state of little knowledge and even lesser grooming.

The above scenario must have been repeating itself every year during the last over six decades since 1947. Add to this the dislocation and destruction caused by riots, floods and such other calamities strung in a thread of punitive political and bureaucratic neglect. Further add to it the phenomenon of ‘Hindutva’ (and its variant called by the quaint name of ‘soft Hindutva’) for the sake of its political dividends. The North Indian Muslim leadership should have perhaps foreseen the contents of the Sachar Committee Report.

Be that as it may, it is evident that both the North Indian Muslim community and its leadership need to embark upon an entirely new strategy, different from the Sir Syed model.


If the stress on ‘education’ has not worked for children belonging to poor families and has not provided the solution to their poverty during the last over six decades, is a new strategy of small business by the parents of those children, worth trying?

Studies reveal that those who do even small business, preferably in a cooperative matrix, do manage to escape grinding poverty. Studies also reveal that one does not have to be highly educated for being a small businessman. In fact, the highly educated rarely go the business way at least from among the North Indian Muslims. And the crowning reality is that even the highly educated, except the professionals like the doctors, the engineers and the management experts, generally remain, at least for a large part of their working years, in a ‘hand to mouth’ situation as long as they remain God fearing and honest.

Take, for example, the Bohra community in Mumbai. There was a time when they were concentrating all their efforts on small businesses operating from within a cooperative matrix binding the whole community, rather than on education. After a reasonable period, they began to give the same degree of attention to education. Today, they are fairly successful in business, are not poor any more and are fairly educated.

This new strategy thus requires the parents from a typically poor family to take up small business, preferably in a cooperative matrix. Provided it is supported by the community, it will not take more than 15 years for a below poverty line family to rise well above it. After this period, these parents will be able not only to pay the fees for their children to study at least till the higher secondary school level but also to lead a reasonably decent, even if simple, life. In the interim period, the children of these poor parents will have to do with whatever level of education they and the community can manage for them.

Of course, not everyone is cut out to do business. Hence the stress on a cooperative framework should be taken seriously, for it will enable each member of the group to support the rest in the area of his own strength.

The case of the intelligent and hard working children has always been and must remain different: it being the responsibility of the whole community to help them to study up to their highest potential.


As mentioned above, small businessmen do not need to be highly educated. It should be remembered, however, that even among them, only the well groomed are truly successful beyond the ordinary level. Grooming is a word with many facets of meanings:

If it includes God fearfulness, it also includes high manners. If it includes praying five times a day, it also includes very hard work. If it includes correctness of weights and measures, it also includes always speaking the truth. If it includes an oft smiling face, it also includes scrupulous keeping of promises. If it includes knowing one’s own rights, it also includes happily giving a little more than the rights to others. If it includes looking after one’s family and relations, it also includes being silently helpful to the unrelated needy.

This list could go on and on but suffice to say that if one went on being obedient to God and His Prophet, one would become more and more well-groomed as well as more and more successful in one’s business as time passes.


During this interim period of poverty alleviation efforts, it will be necessary to devise a strategy for the children who are going to school but are likely to drop out or have dropped out already. One alternative is that such boys be provided facilities for pursuing their education at night schools while being allowed to work part time during the day. Their parents will have to be paid the earnings lost by these boys as a result of working part time. Apart from this, they should also be granted free studentship at schools.

Another alternative is: boys be taught some readily marketable skills through 6-monthly, 12-monthly or 18-monthly courses .Time for these skill acquisition courses can be found by reducing the number of subjects in higher classes, to the bare minimum. One of the most successful institutions run on these lines is the more than 70 odd years old Mohammad Haji Saboo Siddik Technical High School of Anjuman-e-Islam of Mumbai.

It is of course good if these courses can be recognised by the state and central governments but emphasis should always be laid on the high quality of the course content, qualification of the teachers and instructors and the acceptability of those who have undergone these courses, by the employment market.

Another worth considering alternative is for those who have already dropped out of school and are learning some trade and craft through informal hands or on training under senior craftsmen. For such boys, the need will be to strengthen and add value to this arrangement with the teaching of the ‘theory’ behind the ‘practice’ as well as to teach them a bit of English.

Boys who cannot fit into one of the above alternatives for one reason or the other, can adopt the Open School route explained here in the context of girls’ education.

Girls cannot be sent to night schools. They will have to be encouraged to study at home and appear every year at the National Open School Board till they have studied to their potential. Girls too must be taught such skills that can be practised at homes and marketed nearby which will enable them to earn some monies to help their parents today and their families, after marriage.

All said and done, we must also strategise around the fact that facilities for distance education are available everywhere, both to boys and to girls, both at school and at home, both before marriage and thereafter, literally life long. One can enter the ‘education mode’ or the ‘employment or homemaking mode’ at one’s will or even carry on these activities together. In short, there is no need for any boy or girl to feel helpless at stoppage of education at any stage of his or her life: he or she can re-start the process any time as well as complete it at his or her pace.

Of course, it goes without saying that grooming as described earlier, both of boys and girls, should always be a part of every process of learning and skill acquisition.

Alleviation of Poverty-II

The Nobel Laureate Professor Dr. Muhammad Yunus of Bangladesh founded his Grameen Bank in Dhaka some 40 years ago. This bank has helped some 40 lakh very poor families to rise above the poverty line during the last 40 years. Socio-economic activists the world over have been impressed with its success and Grameen Banks have sprung up in many countries, including the USA and South America. India has been late in following suit but has reportedly opened such banks recently. Similar work is, however, being done in India by social activists like Vikram Akula under the name of ‘Microfinancing’ on quite a large scale. His organisation is working in Karnataka with an outlay of hundreds of crores of rupees.

Self Help Groups and Cooperative Credit Societies are two other vehicles used in India for alleviation of poverty.

Prof. Yunus’ methodology: He gives loans only for small businesses. He gives loans only to a group of 8-10 women which submits a project to his bank and which the bank approves, if found feasible. He gives no more than 40,000 to 50,000 takas as loan per group. He does not ask for any mortgages in kind; instead he asks for each woman to keep herself, her house and her children clean, to educate, groom and bring them up as good human beings. He accepts this effort as her guarantee for her loan. Also, default by one woman results in the disqualification of her whole group from receiving any further loan. Result: the rate of return of loans to his bank is very high – at 98 per cent!

There is one negative aspect though: Both he and Vikram Akula have not been able to get rid of ‘interest’ and to the best of this scribe’s knowledge, the Grameen Bank does charge a high interest of around 24 %.

Interest is banned in Islam as well as in the pristine form of many other religions, for the reason that it is highly exploitative. In the four cornered ‘depositor – bank/lender – businessman / producer and provider of goods and services – consumer’ relationship, interest hits only the depositor, who is also the consumer of the goods produced by the businessman. On the other hand, the bank receives assured returns through accrual of interest on loans advanced by it while the businessman stands harmless as long as he is able to pass on the ‘interest’ to his customers.

Muslim social activists in India can follow the Grameen Bank methodology though they must find a solution as to how to eliminate interest.

While Prof. Yunus has found men to be unreliable as they did not return loans and did not spend their earnings on their families, another group, the Al Khair Cooperative Credit Society of Patna Ltd. (KCCSP), has not reported such problems. Going by this experience, the Indian Grameen Banks can give loans to groups of men as well.

In a recent issue of Radiance (8-14 March, 2009) a fairly detailed interview with Mr. Arshad Ajmal, the Chairperson and CEO of the above Society has been published. It presents a positive and encouraging picture of this method of alleviation of poverty and is strongly recommended for further study and adaptation.


Sadaqaat or Returnable Deposits from the wealthy come to the mind almost automatically but this scribe does look up to the religious leadership of the Indian Muslim community to advise as to how to make it possible that all the Nisaby (a word coined as an equivalent of ‘Sahib-e-Nisab’) and the wealthy pay their money in a manner that the madrasas that currently receive Zakat and Sadaqaat continue to receive these while capital becomes available for new madrasas, new schools, adding trades and skills training facilities to both existing and new madrasas and schools and finally, as capital for lending to small businesses proposed above.

If all the Nisabies pay their Zakat, the annual sum for the whole of India will be about 10,500 crore rupees or about 2 billion dollars. One third or slightly more, say 4000 crore rupees out of this may be assumed to be from the North Indian Nisabies.

The amount available annually from Sadaqaat, Muslim Trusts etc. may be another 2000 to 3000 crores from North India.

It should of course be kept in mind that as far as capital for small businesses is concerned, it will be handed out as loans and will come back. The need for this capital is, therefore, not of a continuous or recurring nature.

On the other hand, we should give consideration to reducing expenditure on infrastructural facilities for both schools and madrasas. It is reasonable for a poor community like the North Indian Muslims to opt for cheaper buildings and facilities, designed to last for say 30 years, so that capital expenditure can be reduced and more funds can be made available for expenses such as better salaries for teachers, better teaching aids, skill training ‘add-ons’ etc.

Traditionally, an important part of the infrastructural facilities, especially of the madrasas, is the provision of free lodging and board for students coming from distant places. It needs to be studied in depth whether it is necessary to provide these facilities at all madrasas or should these be confined to the madrasas which are recognised for providing outstanding quality education and attract students from far and wide. The current practice relieves the wealthy from supporting the education of the children of their poor by transferring their responsibility to the wealthy living in bigger cities of the country, and even in other countries.

The approach of Mr. Arshad Ajmal of KCCSP based on his experience on the ground during the last eight years is as follows. To quote from his interview published in the above issue of Radiance:

‘….microfinance on the basis of local resources is possible…. For example, our Phulwari Sharif branch is working in an area that has approximately 12,000 families but our reach till date has been up to only 3,000 families. The deposits we are getting from these 3,000 families are more than 4 crore rupees per annum and we are lending solely on the strength of these deposits.’


Having said all the above, one of the most important challenges that the North Indian Muslim community faces is that of a second line of leadership. That may be of mature age, be God fearing, possess the necessary qualities of head and heart and be able to learn from the collective wisdom of the present leadership as well as from its past experiences, in order to tackle the task of alleviation of poverty in the light of new realities.

The first line of leadership will need to focus its attention on creating that holistic framework which would allow the task of poverty alleviation to be done in a secure, peaceful environment. This is easier said than done but is absolutely imperative.

This scribe also humbly urges the leadership not to commit the suicidal error of confining its concerns to Muslims alone but to follow an inclusive agenda. We should work with even handed love and concern for the Indian people in general and for the poor and the wretched in particular.

This scribe knows that this article must present many opportunities for corrective intervention by the readers. He also knows that he has not touched on many important aspects of the process of poverty alleviation.

Fariduddin Chaudhari has recently retired from his long career as a civil engineer. A graduate of Aligarh Muslim University in India, Mr Chaudhary has actively campaigned for Indian Muslims for more then four decades by regularly writing articles in newspapers and magazines..

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