Thursday, February 25, 2010

Working with Bihar’s Muslims

Self-help groups are a good starting point to help women from poor and conservative Muslim families gain awareness and explore income-generating activities.

“The Muslim community is also divided into traditional occupational groups like Sabji Farosh (vegetable vendors), fakirs, Bakho (sweepers) and Ansari (hereditary weavers), and due to lack of awareness and the strong grip of religious taboos, members of groups find it difficult to change their profession. As the space for traditional occupations is fast depleting, the Muslim community faces a major problem of unemployment and many Muslims come within the bracket of poorest of the poor,” says Sabiha Naaz, chief functionary of Mahila Sevak Samaj (MSS), a PACS Programme CSO working with two partners in Bihar Sharif and Harnout blocks of Nalanda district, Bihar.

Of these two blocks, Bihar Sharif has a high population of Muslims. MSS works in the headquarters of the block, a small town of the same name that has a population of around 50,000, most of them Muslims. MSS works in five wards of the town, which have a total population of 6,000.

According to the CSO, the literacy level in its target group of around 110 families is a mere 5%. Most households are involved in making bidis. The work is laborious and the payment poor. On average, each family earns a meagre Rs 8,000 a year. Families are usually large; some include eight to 12 children.

As Sabiha Naaz points out, the women of this community are particularly disadvantaged as, according to traditional norms, they do not step out of the house. Among other things, this has had a severe impact on their health. Women suffer from tuberculosis, asthma, and other chronic diseases, and do not receive proper medical treatment. Marriage at a young age also affects their health in the long run and impedes any self-development initiatives, or initiatives taken by CSOs.

MSS has made a difference in this challenging situation by starting self-help groups (SHGs) among the targeted 110 poorest families in the block. Eleven SHGs, each with around 12 members, have been formed; a total of 36 members are officially below the poverty line. Till December 2007, the SHGs had saved Rs 31,680 over a period of two years, and five groups had opened accounts with nationalised banks. Around Rs 20,000 was loaned among members, and, not surprisingly, the money was used mostly for medical treatment and buying food.

MSS’s activities received a boost after the launch of the Tara Akshar programme (read more about the programme here). Between March and December 2007, nearly 100 members, belonging to eight SHGs, were enrolled for the fast-track literacy programme.

“Tara Akshar increased our confidence levels,” says Salma Khatoon, a member of the Jugnu self-help group in Bihar Sharif. “We have started writing our names and going to the hospitals and banks.”

Another opportunity for women to step out of their homes and do something on their own was provided by the pulse polio programme. Twelve SHG members were linked to the programme as vaccinators, and they earned Rs 50 a day in each polio round. MSS and its partners have also been able to link 35 Muslim families with some form of entitlement, such as old age pension, and NREGS work. The total worth of these entitlements is estimated to be over Rs 40,000.

“When we deal with Muslims, we cannot focus only on the economic aspect,” stresses Sabiha. “We have to also look at the social and religious aspects, which makes the development process quite slow.”

As a consequence, Sabiha hints, spectacular or quick outcomes cannot be expected. As the MSS work in Bihar Sharif shows, the main challenge is to find legitimate, socially acceptable spaces and opportunities, especially for women, to step out of traditional roles.

This will be one of the major efforts of the second phase of the PACS Programme, PACS Plus, in Bihar as its mandate is to reach out to socially excluded groups and minorities.

State of Muslims in Bihar

Bihar has the highest number of Muslims in India after Uttar Pradesh and West Bengal, and, as shown in a comprehensive study conducted in 2004 by the Asian Development Research Institute (ADRI), Patna, with support from the Bihar State Minorities Commission, Bihari Muslims suffer widespread poverty and inequality.

According to the 2001 census, Muslims in Bihar number 13.72 million. They constitute 16.5% of the state’s population and 9.9% of the country’s total Muslim population.

The ADRI study identified 43 Muslim ‘castes’ in the state: a few ‘upper’ castes (Syed, Shaikh, Pathan and Malik), which constitute around 40% of the Muslim population, one middle caste (Ansari), which accounts for 25% of the Muslim population, and 38 ‘lower’ castes, including the Bakkho, Bhatiara, Chik, Churihara, Dafali, Dhunia, Dhobi and Idrisi, accounting for around 35% of Bihar’s Muslim population.

The largest Muslim population in the state is found in the Purnea administrative division (26.76 1akh) followed by the Tirhut (21.5 lakh) and Darbhanga divisions (13.01 lakh). Out of 37 districts in the state, 14 districts have high Muslim populations of 3 lakh to over 7 lakh. All these districts are in north Bihar.

The majority of Muslims in Bihar are descendants of middle and low-caste converts and are among the poorest communities in the state.

Over 85% of Bihar’s Muslim population live in rural areas and are landless. According to the ADRI study, only 35.9% of Muslim households in rural Bihar possess any cultivable land; the corresponding figure for the general population is much higher, at 58%.

The percentage of rural Bihari Muslims actually operating some land is even lower, at 28.8%. In other words, about one-fifth of land-owning Muslim households owned so little land that they had to lease their land to large cultivators.

As a result of these factors, nearly three-fourths of Bihar’s rural Muslim households are dependent largely on agricultural wage employment and whatever limited self-employment is available.

According to the study, 28.4% of rural Muslim workers are landless labourers, and, on average, they find work for only 230 days in a year. Mean monthly wage earning is less than Rs 600. For more than half the working days in a year, landless labourers have to seek work outside their villages.

In most landless families, young male adults migrate to cities or outside the state to find work. The ADRI study estimated that there were 63 migrants for every 100 Muslim households in rural Bihar. Two out of every three Muslim households in rural Bihar send at least one of their working members away to earn.

Many Muslims living in rural Bihar belong to the artisan caste. However, the study found that barely 2.1% of rural Muslim households were engaged in artisan-based activities. This shows that due to competition from the modern manufacturing sector, traditional artisan-based activities have disappeared, forcing artisans to become landless labourers in villages, or manual labourers in cities.

The average value of implements used by Muslim artisan households was found to be a mere Rs 2,200, and the average annual income from artisan-based activities a little more than Rs 16,000. Many rural Muslim artisan families live below the poverty line.

Significantly, the survey hardly came across any Muslim households engaged in modern manufacturing activity. While there were no such households in the rural sample, in the sample of 1,586 urban Muslim households there were just 12 (0.6%) households engaged in such activity.

Overall, the picture is of a high degree of poverty and deprivation. The per capita income of Bihari Muslims was estimated in the ADRI study to be Rs 4,640 in rural areas and Rs 6,320 in urban areas. Over 49% of rural Muslims and 44% of urban Muslim families were estimated to live below the poverty line.

Where Muslim households in rural areas are somewhat better off than the general population is in housing conditions. Relatively more Muslim families (25%) lived in pucca houses than the general population (10.1%). According to sociologist Yoginder Sikand (read his article here), this could be because some Muslim households have become poor only in recent generations.

However, generally, poor Muslims households are in a weaker position when it comes to grabbing new economic opportunities. Apart from traditional taboos, especially applicable to women, Bihari Muslims are severely disadvantaged by low education levels.

While the overall literacy rate in Bihar is 44.4%, the rate among Muslims is 38% (Census 2001). The disadvantage becomes more obvious when one looks at the higher education figures. Less than 3% of Muslims in the state are graduates, post-graduates, or have received formal technical training.

PACS Programme interventions

In its first phase, the PACS Programme reached out to marginalised communities, including Muslims, by initiating and supporting self-help groups. Over 4,500 SHGs with around 60,000 members were formed in project areas.

Going beyond micro-credit, the SHGs have been instrumental in securing entitlements worth Rs 14 crore. They also played an active role in panchayat elections.

Through the Bihar Panchayat Sashktikaran Abhiyan, launched by the programme before the 2006 panchayat elections, over 10,000 candidates from marginalised communities, supported or nominated by SHGs, filed nominations, and around 2,250 candidates got elected to various panchayati raj posts.

Among them were Muslim women like Hazara Khatoon (40), member of an SHG in Jagatpur panchayat, Ghaghardiha block, Madhubani district. A member of the Kunjara community, she dared to go to the masjid in her village, against the will of the community, and was beaten up.

Another gutsy Muslim woman panchayati raj institution (PRI) member is Khatima Khatoon from Darampur panchayat, Minapur block, Muzaffarpur district. Under her initiative, 60 people got NREGS job cards in the village and she helped secure Indira Awas Yojana entitlements for five deserving families.

Another significant programme initiative was in Nawada district where ‘mahila dalans’ have been formed to provide quick and easy justice to poor women. Under a PACS project, these community-based organisations were set up in 20 villages in one (Nawada) block; in two of these villages Muslims constitute the majority of the population. (To read more about mahila dalans click here).

Among those who benefited from the mahila dalans was Mosaraf, a 25-year-old woman from Nane village who got married to Shakeel. He allegedly ill-treated her and did not take her with him when he got a job in a factory in Kolkata, a year after their marriage. Later, he asked her to join him. Mosaraf refused to go; she asked for a divorce and wanted to remarry. She approached the mahila dalan that called for a meeting of both families. After a few days, the families agreed to the divorce. Mosaraf was able to remarry, something that may not have happened had the matter been referred to the village clergy.

In Nawada and other districts, PACS CSOs were also instrumental in helping poor women find alternative livelihoods with the help of SHG loans. One such woman is Raisa Khatoon, a Muslim widow living in a remote village in Kawakol block, Nawada district. With the help of PACS Programme CSO Gram Nirman Mandal, and a loan from her SHG, she started selling bangles and is able to contribute around Rs 8,000 a year to the expenses of her family.

What is of greater significance at the community level is the fact that Raisa was the first woman in the village to step out of the house without her face covered. She bravely resisted strong protests from elders in the Muslim community.

In the second phase of the PACS Programme, women like Raisa and Hazara Khatoon need to be promoted and supported as inspirational models for other women in the community.

(This report is based on inputs provided by Communicators for Development, Patna)

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