Few studies exist on Muslim social and educational conditions in India. For their part, few Muslim organisations have engaged in such research, being largely incapable or else unwilling to do so. The state, too, has taken little interest in documenting the actual living conditions of Muslims in different parts of India.
Last year, the Asian Development Research Institute, Patna, came out with an in-depth report on the Muslims of Bihar. Sponsored by the Bihar State Minorities Commission, the study is one of the few well-researched surveys on the subject, and certainly the only one of its sort on the Bihari Muslims.
Bihar has the highest number of Muslims in India after Uttar Pradesh, and is characterized by widespread poverty and inequality. Muslims rank among the poorest communities in the state, many of them being descendants of ‘middle; and ‘low’ caste converts. According to 2001 census, the Muslims in Bihar numbered 137.2 lakhs, constituting 16.5% of the State’s total population and 9.9% of the country’s total Muslim population. 87% of the Muslim population in Bihar lives in rural areas, and the rest in towns and cities.
The survey indicates a very high degree of landlessness among the Muslims living in rural Bihar, as well as a high ratio of Muslims with very small landholdings. Only 35.9% of the Muslim households in rural Bihar possess any cultivable land, the corresponding figure for the general population being much higher, at 58%. The percentage of rural Bihari Muslims actually operating some land is even lower, at 28.8%. In other words, for about one-fifth of the land-owning Muslim households the amount of land owned is so marginal that they have no option but to lease their land to a cultivator with larger landholding. As a result, nearly three-fourth of the rural Muslim households are dependent largely on agricultural wage employment and, to a smaller extent, on whatever limited self-employment is available outside the agricultural sector.
Muslim marginalization in rural Bihar is more apparent when one considers the size of their landholdings, the study says. According to the 1990-91 Agricultural Census of Bihar, the average landholding was 2.32 acres. The survey finds the average size of landholding of cultivating Muslim households to be much lower, at 1.91 acres. Further, barely 8.2% of the Muslims households in rural Bihar have landholdings over 2.0 acres. The percentage of Muslims households having at least five acres of land (generally considered to be the minimum size of an economic holding) is miniscule. The survey also finds that although land ownership is much lower for rural Muslim households than for the general population, relatively better irrigation facilities available to the former in some districts that partially compensates for this disadvantage.
Rural Muslim poverty in Bihar, the study shows, is also reflected in the low level of other farm-related assets. Only around a fourth of the cultivating households own a plough and just 3% a tractor, which is less than 1% of the total number of rural Muslim households. Only 10.4 % possess pump sets and some 56% of own some livestock, a figure almost 5 per cent less than that of the general population. For Muslim households in rural Bihar, the study shows, not only is their average land ownership less than that of the general population, but they also are experiencing a slow process of land alienation. The additional amount of land bought by rural Muslim households during the last five years (2.4 percent of the household reporting buying of some land, with an average of 0.32 acres of land per buying household) is less than the land sold by them (2.5 percent of the households reporting selling of some land with 0.49 acres of land per selling household).
Many Muslims living in rural Bihar belong to artisan caste communities However, the survey finds that today barely 2.1% of rural Muslim households are engaged in artisan-based activities. This indicates that in the face of competition from the modern manufacturing sector, traditional artisan-based activities have fast disappeared, forcing artisans to become landless agricultural labourers or else to migrate to cities to work as manual labourers. The average value of implements used by Muslim artisan household was found to be a mere Rs. 2200, and the average annual income from artisan-based activities for such families is only a little more than Rs.16000. This suggests that many rural Muslim artisan families live below the poverty line.
The survey did not come across any rural Muslim household engaged in any modern manufacturing activity. In its sample of 1586 urban Muslim households, it found just 12 (0.6 percent) households engaged in such activity. The average value of machinery per production unit for these households is around Rs. 25000, and the average annual income from these manufacturing units is only about Rs. 51,000. The survey provides the following table on Bihari Muslim workers employed in different sectors of the state’s economy.
According to the survey 28.4 percent of rural Muslim workers are landless labourers, and on an average, they find work for only 230 days in a year. Prevailing average daily wage rates for a whole day’s labour are pathetically low (Rs. 28 in the off-season and Rs. 32 in the peak season), which means that a labourer’s mean monthly wage earning is less than Rs. 600. Making living conditions even more difficult for them is the fact in more than half the working days they have to move outside the village for work.
Overall, this means that Bihari Muslims are characterized by a high degree of poverty and deprivation. Their per capita income is estimated at Rs. 4640 in rural areas and 6320 in urban areas. 49.5% of rural Muslims and 44.8% of urban Muslims in Bihar are estimated to live below the poverty line. 41.5% rural Muslim households and 24.9% urban Muslim households are said to be indebted, the average outstanding loan for the two categories being Rs. 6790 and 4990 respectively, which, as a percentage of the annual income, works out to 21.5% and 11.45% respectively.
Interestingly, according to the survey the housing conditions of Muslim households in rural areas are somewhat better than that of the general population, with relatively more Muslim families (25%) living in pucca houses than among the general population (10.1%). This could be because some of the poor Muslim households have become so only in recent generations owing to a distinct process of marginalisation. Hence, while their present income may be low, their housing conditions might be better. For the same reason perhaps, nearly half of the rural Muslim household (47.4%) also have separate kitchens. Roughly the same proportion of rural families have electricity connections as do non-Muslim families (about one in every eight households). Only about one-fifth of rural Muslim households do not have ration cards, almost all being from poor families.
This report concludes with a plea for greater intervention by the state and Muslim community organisations to address the issue of Muslim social and economic marginalisation. Given the extreme paucity of data on Muslims in India, studies such as this one urgently need to be conducted in other states of India as well.