South Asia’s Ticking Time Bomb of Inequality and Unrest

Across South Asia, simmering discontent runs deep, weaving through its diverse cultures and histories. The question is, will South Asia rise to the challenge, or will it be consumed by the flames of its own discontent? From religious anxieties in India (a 2023 Pew Research Center survey found that 74% of Indian Muslims felt discriminated against) to ethnic fissures in Sri Lanka, from the ongoing humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan (with over 24 million Afghans requiring humanitarian assistance in 2024) to the 2023 Human Rights Watch report on Pakistan documenting ongoing concerns over blasphemy laws, religious intolerance, and the insurgency, from the over 900,000 Rohingya refugees residing in Bangladesh, placing immense strain on resources and infrastructure (over $1 billion per year), to the World Economic Forum’s 2023 Global Gender Gap Report ranking Nepal 146th out of 146 countries, highlighting significant disparities in education, health, and economic participation for women, each nation in the region grapples with unique challenges that threaten peace and regional stability. The Taliban takeover in August 2021 triggered a severe economic crisis in Afghanistan, with the World Bank estimating a GDP contraction of 30-35% in 2022, leaving millions facing food insecurity and displacement. In 2022, Pakistan experienced its worst monsoon floods in decades, impacting over 33 million people and causing $30 billion in damages. With so many serious challenges, can South Asia escape its burden of extreme development challenges? Beyond Headlines: From Inaction to ImplosionThe key questions arising from these crises is whether the burden of extreme development challenges will be further aggravated in 2024 ? The data trend shows that stagnant development will continue to threaten region’s future and it will be further aggravated in the absence of any concrete roadmap. Now, we have, 228 million people in South Asia live in extreme poverty, accounting for 30.5% of the region’s population (using the $1.90 PPP/day poverty line). The region also reports the highest Gini coefficient globally (35.4), indicating significant income disparity within countries, with the richest 10% controlling over 55% of the region’s total income. Chronic malnutrition plagues the region, with 36% of children under five reported stunted. Youth unemployment is at its worst, with an average rate of 13.1%. Only 71% of the population has access to safely managed drinking water services, and only 58% have access to basic sanitation facilities. Women in South Asia earn on average 30% less than men for the same work, and more shockingly, women’s representation in parliaments across the region averages 21% (below the global average of 25.8%). Worryingly, one in three women experience physical or sexual violence from an intimate partner in their lifetime. Nearly 50 million primary and secondary school-aged children in South Asia are out of school, and over 200 million people in the region lack access to basic sanitation facilities. Only 25% of women in South Asia participate in the labour force compared to 75% of men, highlighting a significant gender gap. South Asia also has the highest maternal mortality ratio globally (180 deaths per 100,000 live births).Can it Rise Above the Flames?So, with so many problems on its plate, how will the region come out from this negative shell and prosper? Addressing these critical issues through informed discussion, evidence-based policies, and international cooperation is vital to ensure a more peaceful and prosperous future for the region. The alternative – inaction and ignorance – is a path fraught with peril, with the potential to spill over borders and destabilize the entire world order. Data-driven analysis of regional trade patterns, migration flows, and security cooperation initiatives can inform strategies for collective action and conflict resolution. Understanding region’s complex social fabric requires moving beyond headlines and delving deeper. Analysing the role of social media in amplifying tensions and facilitating mobilization, alongside studying the effectiveness of conflict resolution and peacebuilding initiatives, can provide invaluable insights for navigating the region’s volatile future. The international community, while respecting national sovereignty, cannot afford to be an idle bystander to South Asia’s simmering tensions. A proactive approach based on principles of justice, inclusivity, and respect for human rights is essential. This includes; promoting inclusive dialogue and conflict resolution between different communities and stakeholders, supporting robust democratic institutions and respect for fundamental rights, addressing root causes of poverty, inequality, and marginalization, collaborating on regional challenges like climate change, refugee crises, and terrorism. South Asia needs leaders with the courage to confront these issues head-on, not tiptoe around them. It needs evidence-based action, not empty rhetoric. It needs inclusive dialogue, not silence for dissent. It needs international cooperation, not indifference. And most importantly, it needs empowering the marginalized, not ignoring their cries. South Asia is at a precipice. It can choose the path of confrontation and progress, or the path of ignorance and implosion. The choice is clear. (Sachi Satapathy is a strong advocate of Global South and works as director to a lead development evaluation agency, AF Development Care, New Delhi, India, )

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