Rifaqat Ali dropped out of school three years ago after failing his Class 10 exam twice. His father, a barber in a large hairdressing salon in Delhi, got him a job as a helper but he says he found it “too boring” and quit to look for something more “exciting” to do. But with no education, no skills and no help with professional career advice, he is floundering.
Ali is among the tens of thousands of uneducated, unskilled and unemployable Muslim youth with no prospects of a better future. But now, help may be at hand with the recent launch of an ambitious US$100 million (Dh367m) education and skills development programme for Indian minority youth from disadvantaged backgrounds.
Those selected for the programme will get help to complete their education through open schooling, followed by a hands-on skills training course to prepare them for the job market.
To be run in collaboration with the World Bank, which has given a $50m loan, the scheme is to be rolled out in phases nationwide over the next five years.
Eleven months since the optimistically named Nai Manzil (New Horizons) was announced by finance minister Arun Jaitley, who described it as prime minister Narendra Modi’s personal initiative, it has already been trialled in Bihar – one of the most deprived East Indian states with a large poor Muslim population; the Mumbai suburb of Bhandup; and, most recently, Jammu and Kashmir.
Under the scheme, 17 to 35 year-olds from Muslim, Christian, Sikh and Parsi communities will be offered educational courses and vocational training tailored to their needs.
However, Muslims, being the largest and most deprived of these four officially recognised religious minority groups, are expected to benefit the most. It is perhaps not surprising, then, that Muslims have emerged as its most enthusiastic supporters.
“The Nai Manzil scheme is designed as an integrated education and training programme that provides minority youth communities with skills that are needed for different tasks in a rapidly changing world ,” said Raj Kumar, joint secretary in the department of economic affairs, after signing the loan agreement with Michael Haney, the World Bank’s operations adviser in India, in New Delhi on December 31.
“This project reflects the government’s intent to provide opportunities for youth from minority communities to acquire the education and training that they might have missed out on,” said Haney.
The scheme’s full name is Pradhan Mantri Nai Manzil Yojna (Prime Minister’s Nai Manzil Scheme), to give it an extra political heft.
Ministers and officials are keen to emphasise Modi’s personal involvement in advocating the programme. Muslim members of his Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP), which has traditionally opposed any special deal for minorities – calling it “minority appeasement” in the run-up to national elections – are instead lining up to praise it.
“Now, other countries which need expertise on uplifting their minorities will be looking up to India,” said Abdul Rashid Ansari, head of BJP’s minority cell in a statement.
Minorities affairs minister Najma Heptulla, speaking at its launch in Patna (Bihar) said: “The prime minister may not be wearing a skull cap [a reference to his refusal to wear an Islamic cap offered to him by a cleric during the 2014 general election campaign] but his government, unlike others in the past, is sincerely trying to provide livelihood to minority communities.”
And judging from the Muslim response, they are clearly impressed.
“If it works out well, it will be the government’s best New Year gift to my community,” said Ahtesham Choudhry, a retired Delhi schoolteacher who runs a campaign for better education and job opportunities for Muslims.
His own son Salim, aged 20, is a college dropout and is struggling to find a job. He says he is going to “move heaven and Earth” to get Salim on the scheme.
“If my boy’s life is made I might even vote for Modi at the next election,” he says, with a grin.
Yasmin Khan, a research scholar who works with minority groups, believes it has the “potential of transforming the lives of thousands of disadvantaged young people from minority communities, through a series of educational and training programmes”.
"It is the kind of initiative that the government and media should be shouting about in order to create awareness – so that those for whom it is intended are able to benefit from it," she wrote in the Indian newspaper Firstpost, surprised that it had not been publicised as well as it should have been.
Despite the fanfare surrounding Nai Manzil there is a dearth of detail about how potential applicants can join the scheme. How will candidates be selected? Will it be means-tested? What sort of courses will be on offer? The public are confused and have been leaving unanswered information requests on the official website.
There is a view that the scheme appears to have been rushed out to answer criticism about anti-Muslim bias, which is why it falls short on practical details.
Modi, his critics’ argue, has a track record of launching headline-grabbing initiatives and then failing to follow them through.
Another criticism is that the scheme appears focused more on men than women, though their need is said to be greater.
Some campaigners for Muslim women aim to write to the government calling for it to engage more closely with women. Perhaps, in a nod to these concerns, the Jammu and Kashmir scheme will focus entirely on women at the start.
Female participants will be given a three-month course in vocational skills, ranging from embroidery and saffron and food processing to IT, tourism, electronics and plumbing; Heptulla announced in launching the programme on January 21.
The government estimates that the programme will benefit up to 30 million students. The estimate is based on the assumption that most of its beneficiaries are likely to come from madrassas. (There are more than 300,000 madrassas across the country; each of these on average teaches at least 100 students.) But those who work with Muslim communities are more cautious, and say engagement will depend on how the scheme translates into actual practice – and the enthusiasm and calibre of those entrusted with the job of running it.
The hardest part will be to ensure that people don’t drop out mid-way. “I’m keeping my fingers crossed until it is implemented on the ground,” said one former member of the national minorities commission.
But in spite of such concerns, the scheme is generally being regarded as a positive measure and its critics stand accused of jumping the gun.
The Modi government has taken some steps to improve standards in Muslim education. Within months of coming to power, it revamped and expanded the madrassa modernisation programme introduced by the previous incumbent.
That programme includes introducing computers and other mainstream subjects such as English, the sciences, and maths, in order to bring madrassas into line with the curriculum in secular schools.
However, successive governments have failed to address the problem of an adequate number of schools in Muslim areas and this forces many poorer Muslims to send their children to madrassas.
What Muslims need, it is argued, is access to a broad mainstream education and mixed secular institutions where they can integrate with others in society, not partially-reformed religious ghettos.
It is as much about the milieu in which madrassas exist and the culture they promote in India, as what is being taught. Now that Muslim educational reform is on the government’s agenda, community leaders are hopeful that the prime minister will give serious attention to this long-neglected issue.
Hasan Suroor is an independent columnist and editor of Making Sense of Modi’s India from HarperCollins (India).