COVID-19: The Lockdown Will Hit Muslims Even More in Economic Terms

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Migrant workers and their families walk on a road to return to their villages after the government imposed a 21-day nationwide lockdown to limit the spread of coronavirus, in Surat.

All the poor are supposed to be equally affected by this crisis, but there may be the most disadvantaged even among the poor. A notable number of Muslims form a significant section of this destitute group

Dr Khalid Khan | Clarion India

THE novel Coronavirus has so far infected close to 5,000 people and killed almost 150 in India. The concern is that the statistics are still on the rise despite more than two weeks of the lockdown. The announcement of the lockdown has pushed the life of everyone to a standstill.

There are expectations that it may be extended further, partially or fully. Its implication on the lives of daily wage workers has occupied headlines in the last couple of weeks.

Thousands of migrant daily wage workers on the road highlighted the struggle of the poor amidst this crisis. But those visibly seen returning home are not the only ones being affected; there are many others. The apprehension of job losses and worsening the situation is evident on every face. All the poor are supposed to be equally affected by this crisis, but there may be the most disadvantaged even among the poor. A notable number of Muslims form a significant section of this destitute group.

Though the Justice Sachar Committee has set the priorities focussing on the backward condition of Muslims, this could not survive for more than one decade, thanks to the changed political scenario. Notwithstanding all apprehensions engulfing a section of the majority community, Muslims still continue to be the most backward group in India. Studies by researchers have shown that they are lagging in terms of all indicators of human development.

The low access to the organised sector forces them to rely on low-quality jobs, thus pushing them to the unorganised sector and petty self-employment. The condition of Muslims in urban areas is more vulnerable than their rural counterparts. Studies show the highest prevalence, depth, and severity of poverty among them in urban India. Ghettoised in the outskirts of cities, lacking basic amenities and engaged in low-quality jobs, Muslims continue to remain a residual claimant in India’s growth story.

But they are not the residual claimant when it comes to taking the responsibility of every crisis the country faces. They are the favourite group to be engaged when it comes to blaming a community for anything unwanted happening in the country. This story remains unabated even at the time when the country is facing the worst crisis of Coronavirus. They have been portrayed as an instigator of worsening the crisis.

It was hoped by many that the Muslim-centric apprehension will not be floated in the Coronavirus crisis for the sake of a larger humanitarian cause. Unfortunately, this expectation too was misplaced. The blame this time is that nearly two thousand people were attending a programme at the Markaz of Tablighi Jamaat in Delhi before the announcement of the lockdown. A few hundreds among them were suspected of being infected and thus, allegedly worked as a carrier at the community level.

The expectation of a large section of the population, and also a section of the media, perhaps was that the Jamaat should have cancelled the programme somehow anticipating the lockdown declared abruptly by the Prime Minister after a week. Truth be told, the Jamaat may be blamed for their error of judgment but criminalisation of the issue is devoid of any convincing justification.

The Jamaat is being judged on harsher grounds than the other similar kind of gatherings happened before and after the announcement of the lockdown. Though Muslims are a favourite topic of discussion when it comes to passing the blame, they get a miss when any affirmative action addressing their socio-economic backwardness is demanded. Indeed, the priorities have changed.

It is not that the government has not responded to the crisis; it has quickly responded. Had the relief package been announced before the lockdown, the problem of migrant daily wage workers would have been better addressed. The package has targeted to address the crisis through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee scheme, though it works in rural areas only. It also targets to avail food to a large number of people covering across rural and urban areas. If properly implemented, this may serve the purpose.

It is true that daily wage workers have been the worst affected but other workers are also in a disadvantaged position. In general, the crisis has affected self-employed and casual workers, and regular salaried workers to some extent. The impact will be more on a group when socio-economic background intersects with low quality of occupation in terms of low wage rate and no long term contract. Thus, backward communities like the Muslims form one of the most vulnerable groups. This concern is further justified on the ground that the Muslims constitute a higher share of poor in urban areas where the impact is being felt more than rural areas.

The data from the periodic labour force survey, 2017 shows that Muslims roughly constitute nearly 14 per cent of the approximately 42 crore workers in urban areas; but they are not economically as well off as their Hindu counterparts. Due to the non-availability of data on the level of income, economists generally rely on consumption expenditure per person for a month to gauge the economic conditions of a household. The data suggests that on an average the consumption expenditure of a Muslim worker is Rs 2200 per month but this expenditure is Rs 3200 for Hindu workers, thus suggesting that the Muslim working population is at a more disadvantaged position than the Hindu population.

It is being claimed, and rightly so, that the lockdown is affecting the daily wage workers badly. Would it affect both Hindus and Muslims equally? The available data provides information on wage workers with no written contract and social security benefit, namely casual workers, which may be used to capture the status of vulnerable occupational groups like daily wage workers approximately.

On an average they constitute 18 per cent of the total workers in urban areas. They are economically worse off than other forms of workers. The average consumption expenditure of regular salaried workers (Rs 3,672) is double of casual labour (Rs 1862), while it is one and half times higher (Rs 2,837) among the self-employed. The data shows that Muslim casual workers are more vulnerable than their Hindu counterparts in at least two ways.

First, the average consumption expenditure of a casual worker is Rs 1900 among Hindus but it is Rs 1600 among Muslims, thus implying the relatively weaker economic condition of casual workers among Muslims than Hindus. Second, a relatively higher percentage of Muslim workers than that of Hindus is engaged in casual employment. Nearly 19 per cent of the total Muslim workers are engaged in casual jobs whereas this share is only 13 per cent among Hindus. Thus, any crisis affecting casual workers is likely to affect Muslims more than Hindus.

Another distinguishing feature of Muslims from the viewpoint of employment is in terms of their high concentration in small businesses, also known as self-employment. At an aggregate level, this occupational group constitutes 37 per cent of the total workers in urban India. The share among Hindus- at 35 per cent – is close to all India average in urban areas. The share is higher among Muslims than Hindus. Nearly half of the workers among them i.e. 48 per cent are self-employed.

Like casual workers, workers engaged in self-employed among Muslims are also economically weaker than Hindus. The average consumption expenditure in a month is Rs 2124 among Muslims and Rs 2942 among Hindus. This again reveals the double negative impact Muslims may face if small businesses are adversely affected. On the one hand, these businesses are economically weaker than their Hindu counterparts and on the other hand, they constitute a relatively higher share of the working population among Muslims than Hindus.

The fact of the matter is that the crisis will affect the economically weakest sections the most. Muslims being placed at the bottom rung of the economic ladder, may be the worst affected. However, the political circumstance with changed priorities is giving a miss on the issue worth discussing when it comes to the community.

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Dr Khalid Khan is Assistant Professor at Indian Institute of Dalit Studies. The views expressed here are personal.

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