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Opinion

August 16, 2017

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Beyond these seventy years

As India and Pakistan – two of the largest countries in South Asia – complete 70 years of independence, there is much to contemplate and less to celebrate. Although both countries deserve to celebrate their independence from the British Raj – a common goal of our ancestors which they had made innumerable sacrifices to achieve – it is a pity that both nations have been unable to resolve their bilateral issues and come to terms with their historical baggage.

Owing to their unresolved bilateral issues, much of South Asia has been held hostage to a regressive trend. The region remains static and has not progressed towards becoming a fully integrated entity even though Saarc was established more than three decades ago to achieve this aim. Various other forums and initiatives have also been launched from time to time as well. But they have not had the desired effect.

Representing the southern region of Asia, the total area of South Asia is about 5.2 million square kilometres and its population is 1.7 billion, which is about one-fourth of the world’s population. It is one of the most dynamic regions in the world. But it is also one of the least economically integrated regions. While inter-regional trade is about 25 percent in the Asean countries, in South Asia, “intraregional trade accounts for just five percent of total trade”.

Meanwhile, intra-regional trade accounts for 69 percent of the total international trade of European countries, 50 percent in North America, 27 percent in South and Central America and 13 percent in Africa. It is worth noting that South Asia’s intra-subregional trade share has only inched forward from 2.7 percent in 1990 to five per cent in recent years. This means that we are prepared to export commodities and import material to Europe, America and Africa. However, there is negligible trade among neighbours despite the enormous potential and need.

On account of the shared history and culture of many of the region’s countries – including Afghanistan, Bangladesh, India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka – there is significant potential for economic integration. However, it has been dwarfed by the decades-old interstate rivalries and distrust. Unlike other civilised nations across the globe, India and Pakistan have been the hostages of history, with no focus and policy to resolve differences and enable our future generations to live peacefully.

Unfortunately, the animosity between the two countries has affected much of South Asia and there is hardly any mention of potential cooperation on comprehensive sustainable development policies and plans for future integrations. 

While South Asia is the most populous and perhaps the most densely populated region in the world, it is also the region with the highest number of people suffering from acute poverty. According to the Millennium Development Goals Report 2015, “the overwhelming majority of people living on less than $1.25 a day reside in two regions – Southern Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa”. The report further adds that in terms of overall poverty, about 80 percent of the global poor people live in these two regions.

According to a World Bank report, “about 399 million people – 40 percent of the world’s poor – live on less than $1.25 a day” in South Asia. The region has “the greatest hunger burden, with about 281 million undernourished people”. Similarly, “an estimated 57 percent of out-of-school children never go to school”. Over 200 million people live in slums and about half a billion people have no access to electricity. Similarly, a number of countries in the region suffer from extreme forms of social exclusion and huge infrastructural gaps. To sum it up, South Asia’s score on the Human Development Index (HDI) is 0.607 and life expectancy at birth is 68.4 years. It is only better than Sub-Saharan Africa as its HDI score is 0.518 and life expectancy at birth is 58.5.

Of the 884 million people that lack access to clean drinking water globally, 468 million people live in Asia. With population growth and an increased demand for freshwater for agricultural, industrial, commercial and domestic use, there will be an additional burden on countries to provide an adequate supply of water.

In terms of access to clear drinking water, India has the highest “number of people living in rural areas without access to clean water – 63 million”. This is almost as large as the population of the UK and, according to a report issued by WaterAid in 2017, constitutes enough people to form a line from New York to Sydney and back again. Similarly, 13.6 million people in Bangladesh and 12.4 million people in Afghanistan have no access to clean drinking water. In this regard, Bangladesh and Afghanistan rank at the ninth and tenth positions, respectively. Like the rest of South Asia, Pakistan has similar development issues. These include problems of illiteracy, a host of socio-economic and environmental challenges and concerns about peace and stability.

In order to overcome the challenges of acute poverty, South Asia needs sustained development cooperation in various forms and from various sources. In 2014, the World Bank provided $7.9 billion for the region for 38 projects. The primary sectors that were financed by the World Bank included water, sanitation and flood protection ($1.4 billion), transportation ($1.3 billion) and public administration, law and justice ($1.2 billion).

Similarly, the region received a total of over $15 billion from OECD donors during 2014. The data further reveals that the largest aid recipients were Afghanistan ($4.8 billion), Pakistan ($3.6 billion), India ($2.9 billion) and Bangladesh ($2.4 billion). Other smaller countries – including the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Sri Lanka – also received significant development aid.

In view of the number of people who are poor, live in slums and have little or no access to education, health, energy, clean drinking water, job opportunities, food security and adequate infrastructure, the implementation of the 2030 agenda and the accomplishment of the Sustainable Developed Goals (SDGs) in South Asia seems to be a distant dream. To accomplish sustainable development outcomes, mindsets must change and the security-dominated paradigm must be accommodated. This will ensure that space is given to policy debates, dialogues and open discussions on how India and Pakistan can play a constructive role, not only for their own prosperity but also for the shared prosperity of the larger South Asian region.

As India and Pakistan complete their 70th year as independent states, the leadership of both countries must decide what kind of future they want for the coming generations: whether they want to remain mired in perpetual distrust, hatred and poverty or set the course towards mutual and peaceful coexistence and shared prosperity.

The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the German Development Institute at Bonn, Germany.

Email: [email protected]

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