Beyond the much touted culture mantra, it is the political legacy combined by the geo-economic factors and emerging strategic shifts in the global trends that determines the future of contemporary South Asia. Political legacy in terms of state building, statehood and statecraft along with social process of development vis-à-vis state organism is the key towards understanding this highly dynamic region. No doubt, despite huge inter- as well as intra-state disparities from the development point of view, the region offers great prospects for social and economic leadership in the world.
The region shares similar development patterns, however, with certain peculiarities of each country’s political economy. South Asia houses 22 percent of the global population, makes for 2 percent of Global GDP and 1.3 percent of world trade—and accounts for 44 percent of the poverty-stricken segment of the globe, as compared to Sub-Saharan Africa which is home to 46 percent of the world’s poor.
Pakistan offers an example of a country which offers various juxtapositions in the course of its development. It is systematically underperforming on most social and political indicators including education, health, sanitation, fertility, gender equality, corruption, political instability and violence, and democracy vis-à-vis its GDP per capita growth over time, aptly named ‘growth without development.’ These inequalities are basically between various provinces and their ethnicities; urban and rural regions; and socio-politically marginalized and powerful groups. This is one of the main contributors to intra-state conflict, violence and politically instability in Pakistan; similar situation prevails in other countries of the region.
If only one indicator of labor force is taken into consideration, the dire situation becomes evident. According to the Labor Force Survey 1982-83, 28 percent of the employed labor force had attained formal education in Pakistan, while the current population of the formally educated makes up 43 percent. But the pattern of growth in educated labor force is not uniform in all four provinces. Sindh had the highest level of literacy a couple of decades ago; Balochistan had the lowest literacy level for the employed labor force. The gap between the literacy level of Sindh and the provinces of Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, has been further skewed in recent times. This is because Sindh’s educated mass has grown at a decreasing rate due to political instability in the province as well as the center’s inability to support the region.
Similar is the case, however, on relatively lower scale and with slightly different nature, with other countries of the region particularly India, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and Nepal, where underdeveloped Northeast in India, Southeast in Bangladesh, Northwest in Sri Lanka and mountainous population of Nepal face socioeconomic marginalization and underdevelopment. This has resulted in a range of intra-state conflicts in the region that includes Kashmir, Jharkhand and Assam vs Delhi in India; mountainous tribes of Chittagong vs Dhaka in Bangladesh; Mountainous vs Tarai people in Nepal; Tamil vs Sinhala majority in Sri Lanka; and Balochistan and Sindh vs Islamabad in Pakistan.
Achieving stability and prosperity in the region calls for a multi-pronged approach. The unavoidable change in the anatomy and chemistry of state organism as well as the nature of federalism so as to level the playing field of polity and development may be provided through judicious distribution of resources to the marginalized classes, ethnicities and social groups. Besides, it essentially requires inter-state arrangements that positively enhance the productive interdependency and interwoven social fabric; and finally a regional socioeconomic policy and collectively agreed tangible plan along with its political and structural armaments that ensures the sustenance of the region as a progressive economic and leading cultural region in the world.
The countries in the region desperately require major reforms that help detach its colonial strings and transform it from an oligarchy to the people’s state offering maximum federalism. This is the only way to foster equitable development in the intrastate context by minimizing intra-state conflicts and domestic instability in the region.
Besides, a wider range of initiatives is required to promote inter-state progressive dependencies which may include the Establishment of a Ministry for South Asian Affairs, Establishing of South Asia University with campus in every regional country and a South Asian Media House; South Asian Multiple Visa for the Married Couples belonging to two different countries, construction of South Asian Highway from Dhaka to Kabul, Kandhahar and Tehran. Similarly, other important initiatives could be establishment of Bank of South Asia and initiating South Asian Prize Bonds; founding a South Asian Sports Board; passports bearing major South Asian languages of the region, establishing a South Asian Tourism Board; South Asian Courts of Justice similar to International Court of Justice; a loose forum like Congress of South Asian States/Provincial Government Representatives; and announcement of limited Dual and Multiple nationalities in South Asia for senior citizens, journalists, peace activists and divided families.
Additionally, establishment of a South Asian Disaster Fund and South Asian Scouts to promote volunteerism during natural disasters; establishment of Press Club of South Asia; organizing a Collective Forum of the South Asian Political Parties; inclusion of South Asian languages departments in all public universities and inclusion of South Asian Culture and History Department in every major university.
The dream of a promising South Asia can only be realized if these initiatives are taken for homogeneous development, interdependency and vibrant social and economic progress across the region. Collective peace and cultural prosperity can yet be attainted through meaningful interdependency.
The author is Executive Director at The Institute for Social Movements, Pakistan