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South Asia: Challenges Of The 21st Century
Dr.Akmal Hussain
Newspaper: Daily Times
Dated: Friday, August 16, 2002


This is the moment of reckoning in South Asia. There is a growing awareness of its tremendous human and natural resource potential as well as growing evidence of the undermining of this potential resulting from unsustainable development strategies pursued over the last four decades and the persistence of inter-state conflict. After over five decades of independence and inspite of reasonably high economic growth rates over the period, 50 percent of the population in South Asia is unable to consume 2300 calories per person per day and over 60 percent of the population does not have safe drinking water. In contrast to the deprivation of the people, the State is spending so much on the machinery of governance that it is locked into a financial crisis. Consequently, governments in South Asia today are financially incapable of taking any serious initiative for poverty alleviation.

The top down growth process based on centralized state structures has not only produced poverty alongside burgeoning state apparatuses. In fact, the real resource base which could provide the means for material improvement of society in future, is being undermined: A developmental approach that regards nature as merely an exploitable resource and where the power interests of the few take precedence over the lives of the many, has resulted in rapid deforestation, desertification, and toxicity of some of the major rivers.

As the bottom 50 percent of the South Asian population has begun to feel deprived of effective economic citizenship, there is a polarization of society along linguistic, ethnic and communal lines. Amidst growing internal conflict, the State inspite of having spent a lion's share of government revenues on its administrative and coercive apparatuses, finds itself helpless today in fulfilling its minimal function: Protection of the life and property of citizens. It can be argued that the phenomenon of erosion of the credibility of governments to provide security to the citizenry and the phenomenon of social violence feed off each other. When there is social polarization and breakdown of law, the ordinary individual often succumbs to seeking security in the most proximate group identity he can find. (This may be ethnic, communal, regional or linguistic). Such proximate identities have a primordial emotional charge which is often mobilized against the other as a means of achieving group cohesion. Thus, escalating violence is inherent to the psyche of this particular form of group identification. These conditions of internal conflict are threatening not merely state structures but the very fabric of society in South Asian countries.

As poverty grows apace, as the real resource base of the region gets eroded, and as society gets riven by internal conflicts, a new spectre has begun to haunt the region: The spectre of a nuclear holocaust. India and Pakistan both have nuclear weapons while the Kashmir dispute continues to fuel tension between the two countries. In a situation of continued tension, where neither side has a flexible response capability, and where the flying time of missiles is less than 3 minutes, the probability of an accidental nuclear war is unacceptably high. Equally dangerous, in the current warlike posture of troops along the border, any spark could light a conventional war which could quickly spin out of control into a nuclear conflagration.

Never before in history was the choice between life and comprehensive destruction so stark as it is today. The question is, can we grasp this moment and together devise a new path towards peace, sustainable development and regional cooperation? There is an urgent need today for moving out of a mind-set that regards an adversarial relationship with a neighbouring country as the emblem of patriotism, affluence of the few at the expense of the many, as the hallmark of development, nature as an exploitable resource and individual greed as the basis of public action. We have arrived at the end of the epoch when we could hope to conduct our social, economic and political life on the basis of such a mind set.


What then are the challenges of the 21st Century for South Asia? Essentially, it is the creation of a new relationship between man, nature and growth. Specifically, the task consists of taking three initiatives which together could take the peoples and states of the region towards sustainable development, peace and regional cooperation. These are:

(1) Building decentralized state structures. These could make administrative decision making more efficient by reducing the information loss inherent in a centralized and hierarchic administrative structure, reduce corruption by minimizing discretionary powers of officials, and finally, lighten the massive financial burden associated with centralized administration.

(2) Initiating a new development process that would not only generate higher GDP growth but also greater equity by involving the participation of all strata of society. It would seek to decentralize power such that the communities at the local level could acquire greater control over the decisions that fashion their economic and social lives and the conditions of their physical environment.

(3) Resolving the Kashmir dispute, in order to achieve the basis of lasting peace, and using for the welfare of the people the huge peace dividend that would become available when a new structure of peace and mutual reduction in defence expenditure is established in South Asia. Resolution of the Kashmir dispute by India would be an investment in India's own national security and in the security and well-being of the South Asian region. Escalating military expenditures by India and Pakistan do not change significantly the relative military position of either. Therefore higher military expenditures do not necessarily enhance security. On the contrary as funds get directed away from poverty alleviation, it can be argued that internal social polarization may be accentuated. It is internal social conflict that is a far greater threat to national security than the existence of a neighbour across the border. Thus a resolution of the Kashmir dispute, in so far as it establishes the basis of lasting peace, and enable greater availability of resources for achieving poverty alleviation, would be a vital investment in the future social stability and security of South Asian states.


Today the market is being apotheosized as the mythical space in which freedom and material well-being of society would be the outcome of the competitive pursuit of greed by each individual.

The atomization of society, the inculcation of greed, and the estrangement of the individual from his essential self are features of contemporary culture. Clearly a new, more humane sensibility must form the basis of a sustainable relationship between man, nature and economic growth. Perhaps South Asia can contribute to the modern world by weaving from the golden threads of its folk cultures the tapestry of a 21st century sensibility.

In South Asia the interaction of diverse civilizations across millennia has brought to the surface certain social features of each civilization which while being rooted in its specific linguistic, religious and cultural form are essentially of a universal nature. Three characteristics of a South Asian sensibility can be articulated:

i) The other is not merely to be tolerated but constitutes the essential fertilizing force for the growth of the self. The other when brought into a dynamic counter-position to the self, enlarges self-hood. To recall the words of Shah Hussain, the 17th century Punjabi Sufi poet. "You are the woof and You the warp, you are in every pore, say Shah Hussain Faqir, I am nothing, all is you".

ii) The journey to the other involves a transcendence of the elements of social life which reinforce the ego: Such as aggressive pursuit of material possessions or power within formalized and hierarchic structures. In the words of Bulleh Shah, the 18th century Sufi poet, "the distinction between the body, emotion and property was clarified at the moment when I set to light my hut."

iii) In the folklore of South Asian societies, the creative growth of the individual is based on a tension between the actual and the possible. In the words of Sultan Bahu, "The heart's desire articulates the possibility; when one possibility is actualized, a new possibility is born".

It is these psychic propensities rooted in the collective unconscious which give to the South Asian sensibility its creativity, dynamism and continuity. The pursuit of peace development and a more humane society in South Asia, could be drawn from these perennial well-springs.

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