I. END OF AN EPOCH
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
II. THE CHALLENGES
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
(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.
III. THE ROOTS OF A HUMANE SOCIETY
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
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.