Devel­op­ment and in­equal­ity: the case of South Asia

The Pak Banker - - 4editorial - Has­san N Gardezi

In Pak­istan the ex­is­tence of the caste sys­tem is al­to­gether de­nied on the ground that in its philo­soph­i­cal ra­tio­nale and rit­ual prac­tices it is a dis­tinctly Hindu in­sti­tu­tion. How­ever, it is im­pos­si­ble to vi­su­alise Mus­lims of the sub­con­ti­nent in iso­la­tion from their Hindu an­ces­tral and cul­tural her­itage

South Asian coun­tries took a head start in the devel­op­ment race just af­ter World War II when the Euro­pean colo­nial em­pires were break­ing apart. Some of the East Asian coun­tries were still en­gaged in civil wars, or re­cov­er­ing from the rav­ages of World War II and Ja­panese oc­cu­pa­tion. In ad­di­tion to the ad­van­tage of a head start, Pak­istan and its South Asian neigh­bours had in­her­ited in­tact a mod­icum of mod­ern in­sti­tu­tional and phys­i­cal in­fra­struc­ture left be­hind by the Bri­tish colo­nial ad­min­is­tra­tion. The newly in­de­pen­dent state of In­dia was also equipped with a mod­est but sig­nif­i­cant in­dus­trial base de­vel­oped dur­ing colo­nial times.

Then how is it that South Asian coun­tries, in­clud­ing Pak­istan, not only lost their ad­van­tage but fell far be­hind the East Asian coun­tries in eco­nomic and so­cial devel­op­ment? That is the ques­tion I would like to ex­plore briefly.

De­spite its early edge in the devel­op­ment race, South Asia to­day is home to the largest con­cen­tra­tion of the world's poor. In sta­tis­ti­cal terms the re­gion has the high­est in­ci­dence of poverty in ab­so­lute num­bers as well as in pro­por­tion to its pop­u­la­tion, com­pared to any other re­gional group of coun­tries. The pop­u­la­tion of the ab­so­lutely poor liv­ing in South Asia is 43 per­cent com­pared to 14 per­cent in East Asia - ex­clud­ing China - 24 per­cent in Latin Amer­ica and 39 per­cent in sub-Sa­ha­ran Africa.

Pak­istan, Bangladesh and In­dia, the three largest coun­tries of the South Asian sub­con­ti­nent, con­tinue to score some of the low­est ranks on the Hu­man Devel­op­ment In­dex (HDI), a com­pos­ite scale of eco­nomic and so­cial devel­op­ment pro­duced an­nu­ally by the UN Devel­op­ment Pro­gramme (UNDP). Among the 169 coun­tries ranked by the UNDP in its Novem­ber 2010 re­port, Bangladesh, Pak­istan and In­dia hold the ranks of 129, 125 and 119 re­spec­tively, with the high­est rank of num­ber one go­ing to the Euro­pean coun­try of Nor­way.

Sev­eral ex­pla­na­tions have been of­fered to ac­count for this anoma­lous sit­u­a­tion, some of which raise quite valid points. It is said, for ex­am­ple, that the US-in­spired par­a­digm of devel­op­ment pro­moted world­wide from the 1950s to 1970 and its neo-lib­eral glob­al­i­sa­tion ver­sion there­after, was too flawed to pro­duce any pos­i­tive re­sults by way of eco­nomic devel­op­ment and gen­eral pros­per­ity in South Asia. The in­volve­ment of In­dia and Pak­istan in their de­struc­tive and waste­ful wars and re­sul­tant di­ver­sion of re­sources from their projects of devel­op­ment is an­other im­por­tant ar­gu­ment for­warded to ex­plain the lack of ma­te­rial progress in these coun­tries.

While the fac­tors sin­gled out in such ex­pla­na­tions have no doubt con­trib­uted to the dis­mal record of eco­nomic and so­cial devel­op­ment in South Asia, I would sug­gest that there is yet an­other and more fun­da­men­tal im­ped­i­ment to ma­te­rial progress in the re­gion. This im­ped­i­ment con­sists of the uniquely South Asian phe­nom­e­non of struc­tural in­equal­ity built into the fab­ric of the en­tire sub­con­ti­nen­tal so­ci­ety. Al­though the main­stream so­cial sci­ence lit­er­a­ture on devel­op­ment by­passes this deep-rooted struc­tural fea­ture of the sub­con­ti­nen­tal South Asian so­ci­ety, it is well recog­nised in the writ­ings of po­lit­i­cally ac­tive in­tel­lec­tu­als and so­cially con­scious aca­demics, par­tic­u­larly those who have lived and worked in any of the south Asian coun­tries.

It is sig­nif­i­cant to note that Jawa­har­lal Nehru was strongly con­vinced that In­dia will never be gen­uinely free un­less its lead­ers ad­dressed the coun­try's age-old prob­lem of in­equal­ity go­ing back to Vedic times. In his 1929 pres­i­den­tial ad­dress to the La­hore ses­sion of the In­dian Na­tional Congress he ob­served, "Great as was the suc­cess of In­dia in evolv­ing a sta­ble so­ci­ety, she failed in a vi­tal par­tic­u­lar, and be­cause she failed in this, she fell and re­mains fallen. No so­lu­tion was found for the prob­lem of in­equal­ity. In­dia de­lib­er­ately ig­nored this and built up its so­cial struc­ture on in­equal­ity." That struc­tural in­equal­ity ob­served by Nehru was ob­vi­ously a ref­er­ence to the unique caste sys­tem of the sub­con­ti­nent, which, com­bined with the evolv­ing class sys­tem of the ur­ban­is­ing in­dus­trial cities, re­mains per­va­sive and heav­ily in place even to­day. Af­ter in­de­pen­dence In­dian leg­is­la­tors placed cer­tain clauses in the pre­am­ble of the con­sti­tu­tion pro­hibit­ing dis­crim­i­na­tion on the ba­sis of caste, but this re­mains no more than a paper dec­la­ra­tion. In Pak­istan the ex­is­tence of the caste sys­tem is al­to­gether de­nied on the ground that in its philo­soph­i­cal ra­tio­nale and rit­ual prac­tices it is a dis­tinctly Hindu in­sti­tu­tion. How­ever, it is im­pos­si­ble to vi­su­alise Mus­lims of the sub­con­ti­nent in iso­la­tion from their Hindu an­ces­tral and cul­tural her­itage, the peo­ple with whom they have lived in close con­tact for cen­turies.

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