A globally recognised organisation, Oxfam, has recently issued a report “Asia at a crossroads” that underlines the challenge of spiraling inequalities in Asia. The succinctly written document identifies the factors that engender a complex vortex of poverty adjacent to islands of profligacy of millionaires.
Income equality has an undeniable paramountcy among the multiple factors that fester the widespread imbalance of human development in Asian countries. Plagued by pathologically anti-poor public policies, frequent natural cataclysms, authoritarian regimes, ubiquitous corruption, malevolent conflicts and regional animosities; most of the Asian countries find bottom slots on human development index.
The Oxfam report, yet another grim reminder of the yawning gap between the haves and have-nots, reveals a startling fact that while China and India have over 1.3 millionaires, both countries ironically are home to more than 300 million people living in extreme poverty. Admittedly, income disparities are not new to human societies and are not confined to the under-developed or developing countries. Developed societies, however, have ability to cater basic needs to most of their citizens. Minimum nutrition, critical healthcare, quality drinking water and other basic requirements to keep the body and soul tied are mostly ensured through various mechanisms. Nevertheless, developed societies are also not completely impervious to issues like relative poverty, unemployment, housing deficit, income gaps and gender discrimination.
Asia, with large and robust economies of Japan, China and India, flanked by rapidly growing economies of Indonesia, Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Korea, Taiwan, Vietnam and Bangladesh, has far greater potential to ameliorate lives of millions of poor in the region. While averages of various indicators have witnessed remarkable incline in these countries, tribulations continued to stalk millions falling in the low income brackets. Disparities are even starker in case of women, rural communities and discriminated social groups.
According to the report, in poorest households of Nepal, under-five mortality rate is twice higher than in the richest households. In India, 80 per cent of the richest mothers can access a health facility to deliver a baby whereas only one out of ten poorest women can avail this vital service. From tax waivers to public subsidies, astute richer segments dexterously maneuver every benefit in their favour.
According to another report “Addressing inequality in South Asia”, released by the World Bank last year, the poorest 40 per cent Pakistani households receive less than 30 per cent of total electricity subsidies compared to 40 per cent subsidies grabbed by the richest 20 per cent. The report reads “growth has been effective at reducing poverty in South Asia, as it was in East Asia. In both regions, higher levels of income per capita have been associated with a lower share of the population living on less than $ 1.25 per day.”
The World Bank report also highlights social stratification as an underlying cause of this malaise. The report says “a substantive equality of opportunity remains an elusive goal in South Asia. In terms of access to basic services, many children are still suffering from discrimination because of their socioeconomic background. For example, in Afghanistan, Bhutan, India, Nepal, and Pakistan, girls have fewer chances than boys to study because of cultural and social reasons. Girls 12 to 18 years of age have both lower secondary school attendance rates and lower completion rates than boys of the same age group. In Afghanistan and Pakistan, the difference in attendance rates between boys and girls is as high as 25 percentage points and 14 percentage points, respectively. In India, the difference between girls’ and boys’ completion rates reaches 11 percentage points.”
Various other reports of international organisations also echo these findings. In 2012, Save the Children Organisation released a report “A life free from hunger” which described appalling state of malnutrition in Pakistan. The report claimed that one-third of the families are compelled to slash their food budget because of escalating food prices and financial squeeze. It attributed some 35 per cent deaths of under-five children to food scarcity.
According to the report, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India, Nigeria and Peru are home to more than half of the world’s malnourished children. The report makes an ominous prognosis that if remedial measures are not taken, within next 15 years Pakistan will attain an ignominious distinction of having highest percentage of stunted children population. The stunning rate in Pakistan during last ten years has gone up by 50 per cent.
After the floods of 2010, malnutrition in parts of Sindh province was likened with that of Africa and war-ravaged territories. Policy-makers conveniently blame apocalyptic floods of successive years for this situation but the situation was not much different before the floods.
In spite of bumper harvests in plains of Punjab and Sindh, malnourishment is widespread among poor communities. Data shows that the food security does not have any linear arithmetic correlation with crop production. Market forces and a cobweb of vested interests determine accessibility to food. It involves a range of factors such as cartels, venal decision makers, smugglers and security situation in the area.
Over the years, commercial and corporate farming has devoured subsistence farming that leaves poor communities in starvation despite producing bumper crops. These devious forces command unparalleled influence through informal markets to out-power and out-wit infirm governments in Asian countries. They deceitfully maneuver public policies, circumvent laws and rules and forge vicious cross-border alliances with criminal webs. Most of them actually enjoy coveted positions in governments and have direct access to key decision making corridors. At times security apparatus also collude with these forces to fortify their iron fist.
Military’s commercial interests in Asian countries have grown exponentially during recent decades. Agriculture is key ingredient of most of the Asian economies and land is the basic production unit of the sector. Military avidly occupies large parcels of productive land under security guise.
During British colonial period, highly fertile canal lands were allotted to military top brass as a reward for their loyalty. The unabated practice was bolstered by post-colonial military-managed states where military controls large holdings both individually and institutionally.
Prime urban properties and businesses are another dimension of military’s commercial appetite. It virtually dominates the whole value chain from plough to price fixing in agriculture sector that afflicts food security scenario in many ways. Control over land, water and other key inputs leaves poor segments at the mercy of murky chain of actors. Such monstrous manipulation of grain causes an artificial food deficit for the poor which has little to do with the wrath of nature.
The affliction is not confined to nutrition only; it breeds wider spectrum of inequalities and culminates in the overall socio-political disempowerment of weaker segments of society. The situation is further aggravated by climatic shocks. Standing crops are perished by floods and dry spells result in shortages of fodder causing morbidity and mortality of livestock that deprives poor from their lifeline assets. It enhances their vulnerability to even milder socio-economic temblors.
After depriving poor from all their means of livelihoods and pushing them to the rock bottom, governments resort to social safety programmes to pay them charity pittance as generous political favour with a topping of statements of commiseration. The whole system connives to first make them poor and then a part of system become Santa Claus to dupe them with doles. This stratagem helps in sustaining the powerhouse of powerful and perpetuates malicious cycle of poverty.
Inequalities create perilous socio-political turmoil with far reaching ramifications. Nexus between the two is often glossed over and trivial symptoms are held responsible. Flawed diagnosis leads to misplaced prescription that culminates at cure with fatal consequences.