The recent devastating floods in Pakistan, which affected the lives of more than 20 million people, has once again revealed the severe poverty its people are facing.
The only property that many hundreds of thousands were left with after fleeing their mud homes was just a trunk, a few clothes, pottery and maybe a donkey, cow or buffalo.
The economic growth and progress, much-touted by successive civilian and military governments, has excluded millions of people languishing in hopeless poverty. This is the situation persistent in all South Asian countries. Under the influence of neoliberal formulations, no longer do governments talk of "abolition" or "elimination" of poverty, but only its "alleviation".
The United Nations’ Human Development Report 2009 said Afghanistan is ranked 132 out of 182 countries; Bangladesh is 112, Pakistan 101 and Nepal 99. This indicates only the “absolute poor” — those who are unable to meet their daily nutritional requirements calculated in terms of calories. The number of poor would be far higher if other aspects of a dignified quality of life were considered.
Large sections of the population — easily the majority — are deprived of basic necessities of life, such as adequate shelter, clothing, education and health services. Studies now indicate that the problem of poverty, even in countries like India that boast substantial economic growth, is persistent.
The Pakistan Planning Commission said the poverty rate has jumped from 23.9% in 2005 to 37.5% to 2008. The commission estimated that there were 35.5 million people living below the poverty line belly in 2005, but in 2008 there were more than 64 million, out of 160 million.
Unemployment has also increased. Moreover, 40% of the urban population lives in slum areas. Cuts in social sector spending are increasing poverty and reducing the standard of living in Pakistan. After the recent floods, it is estimated that at least US$43 billion will be needed to rebuild. The United Nations appeal to raise $2 billion for those affected by the flood, even if successful, will make only a tiny difference.
There is a race among the governments of South Asia to prove statistically a decline in poverty. States, governments and even non-government agencies, particularly those associated with privileged groups, rush to tell us that poverty is on the decline.
Poverty is officially defined in terms of the ability/capacity of a person to eat the minimum number of calories required to stay alive. The number of calories was scaled down from the international standards of 2400 a day to suit the conditions of climate and of people's “body build” in South Asia, to 2100 calories a day.
Such numbers can only be useful for statistical purposes, not for the real lives of millions of people.
Unfortunately the "growth and progress" debate in several South Asian countries tends to hide the poor and vulnerable people.
South Asian countries' economies are structurally adjusted by neoliberal orthodoxy, directed towards a closer integration into the world market. One sees increased operations of global capital within these countries with minimal or no restrictions and free flow of finance capital with the intervention of the World Bank, International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Trade Organisation (WTO).
This has not reduced or eradicated poverty — on the contrary, it has increased the numbers of the poor and the disparity between rich and poor. The disparity is glaring in all South Asian countries, especially in Pakistan. A section of society, somewhat wider than the traditional elite, enjoys unprecedented levels of income.
Neoliberalism has deprived people of their basic rights to food, education and jobs. It has aggravated hunger and increased death by starvation. It facilitates the plunder of the Earth’s natural resources and the exclusion, marginalisation and the denial of rights, justice and democratic freedom of the majority.
The current economic trends have plunged agriculture, which is the source of income for the majority in these countries, into deep crisis. The feudal system remains intact in major countries in South Asia, thus paving the way for more bonded labour and slavery. All the tasks of modernising society remain unsolved, and the ruling elite has failed miserably in developing their countries on a more just and democratic basis.
The achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in South Asia is minimal and there is strong doubt that the majority of the goals will be achieved by the deadline of 2015.
The women of South Asia have a disproportionately lower level of participation in the labour force compared with the rest of the world. Less education and lower skill levels of women lead to lower earning capacity.
Gender discrimination starts even before birth — with high rates of female infanticide — and continues throughout life. South Asia has the highest rates of female illiteracy in the world.
Displacement is a big problem. Armed conflicts of various types are one reason. "Development" programs also displace millions. Natural disasters are another big cause of internal displacement.
The recent Pakistan flood forced at one time more than 10 million people to leave their homes. In 2009, a military operation in the Swat valley resulted in 3.5 million people leaving their homes for more than three months.
It was the same in the case of the catastrophic October 2005 earthquake. All promises by the government to provide timely relief and rehabilitation did not materialise.
All South Asian countries have altered their economic policies, political arrangements and foreign policy stances to suit the interests of the dominant industrialised countries. This has often come under the direction of the multilateral financial institutions, such as the World Bank, IMF and WTO.
Instead of taking responsibility for these failures, the World Bank and IMF are now blaming the victim countries for having poor institutions, bad governance and corrupt practices. Jobless growth in particular is being blamed on rigid labour market institutions and resistance to globalisation.
Most workers, both men and women, are employed in the rapidly swelling and unorganised informal sector, characterised by uncertain wages and job security. With virtually no legal protection or unionisation, workers in these sectors are vulnerable to exploitation.
The Human Development Report 2009 said the share of expenditure of the poorest 10% in Pakistan is only 3.9% as compared with 26.5% by the richest 10%. The situation is far worse in Nepal, where the ratio is 2.7% to 40.4%.
The principal issues before all the people of the region include: survival with dignity; democracy and independence; the anti-people trends of neoliberalism, corporate globalisation, unfair trade practices and debt; militarisation; fundamentalism; gender injustice and the feminisation of poverty; armed conflicts; labour exploitation; and unjust access to natural resources.
These problems cannot be solved at the national level, let alone locally. The lasting solution can only be regional, to be sought, forged and implemented through struggle across South Asia through cooperation by the toiling masses.
The emergence of a new politics requires building new kinds of social and political institutions. The new politics is not an "end of the state" but the affirmation of the state as an instrument of people's power, people's democracy and people's empowerment.
The alternative politics needs to challenge the development paradigm that argues for the market as the only appropriate answer to the problem of economic development.
However, focusing on the state is not enough. Global capitalism is no longer identified with one country. Therefore the countries of South Asia are in a need today of a new radical imagination. The immediate struggle will have to focus on the question of survival and sustenance, and on economic and social rights.
The goal of a new universal culture and a new internationalism will be necessary a component of this new vision.
[Farooq Tariq is a spokesperson for the Labour Party Pakistan. Visit www.laborpakistan.org.]