Revelations and Reassessment: South Asia

Jared Diamond’s ‘Guns, Germs and Steel’ gives us a much appreciated insight into the origin of civilization and its development. More importantly it gives us approximate answers as to why civilization developed the way it did. Why some regions are more developed than others. Though this uses scenarios existing much earlier, in my opinion, these models with some extrapolation and tweaking can prove extremely relevant in the current foreign and domestic policy setting.We are standing at a precipice where South Asian politics is undergoing a long-awaited political change, from Sri Lanka to India to Pakistan, to the constitution of Nepal et cetera. At such a stage, the road forward is extremely crucial to the stability and growing international importance of the region. This OpEd studies South Asia through a new lens.

We shall initially try to follow two strings of thought and then narrow them down to brief case studies. Firstly, that growth regimes are endemic and cannot be duplicated directly with the anticipation of results. And secondly, growth regimes need to be sustainable to even suit their nomenclature.

We know that different countries rank differently with respect to factor endowments. Some countries are floating on oil while others cut yellowcake on their birthdays. We see many examples, in the Middle East, of countries’ foreign policies being dictated by oil and gas reserves. Securing and improving Nuclear Power has become another determinant in this regard. Every country aspires to have a booming economy and high growth rates.

A country having abundance of a certain natural resource must ensure that that resource is used equitably and consistently over a long period of time, guaranteeing a minimum recovery rate for it. This will help reduce cyclical fluctuations of that resource and reduce volatility which in turn calls for additional adjustments in other sectors. India, which is one of the top producers of rubber, has to import 37% of its annual demand. Agreed that this is due to our industrial requirements, but when we look at the production statistics, we see that production has actually shrunk in the current fiscal. This was mainly due to strikes, price incompetence, etc. There is a huge potential for increase in Indian production which can be harnessed if the indigenous cultivators are assured of a competitive market and import duties are maintained with the intention of bringing domestic rubber at a competitive par with imports. This will reduce cultivators’ attrition and at the same time guarantee that the prices are not raised exorbitantly.

Another factor is the overall terrain of the country/region. Here we refer to the overall capacity to use the terrestrial extent of the country for various purposes. Every physical feature entails with it a specific set of land use, and maximum utilization of that feature is warranted. But what we see is that the valleys and mountains are cut open to make plains while the plains are conveniently used for artificial purposes. The distribution of such arable land in Nepal is extremely inequitable due to its topography. With semblance of the feudal system still in existence, much of the land is subject to ghost land-ownership and is left uncultivated. This problem is acute in Pakistan and Afghanistan too but more so in countries such as Nepal where arable land is short in supply. Now we are all witness to the acute shortage of stockpiles of food in Nepal during this tragedy. The reverse happens in mountainous regions. While farming on natural terraced slopes of the mountains is justified, the artificial contouring of these slopes is having many adverse effects on the landscape as well as the climate.

Another alarming revelation is that the kind of growth regime to be followed depends on the political orientation of the ruling party. Idealism is not ‘practical’ any more and people prefer pragmatism, why then do they let their so called ideology affect their policy decisions? If a certain party believes in an aggressive style of foreign policy then it will incline towards developing hard power centres and vice versa. This is irrespective of what the country actually needs.  The people that the various nations’ armies are trying to save from the threat of militancy are dying of hunger, thirst and disease.

Demographic statistics also play a very important role in this respect. The absolute value of population of the country, distribution of the population, literacy levels etc. also need to be considered. These play a very important role in South Asia where much of our demographic dividend is yet to be harvested. Every country must strive towards inclusive and equitable growth, devolving the benefits to everyone. But what we see nowadays is unqualified opacity and inaccessibility to the system. Every department and sector has developed its own jargon objectively to keep itself out of the reach of the plebeian. Knowledge and resources are sought to be concentrated and not disseminated. In such a scenario, the government must first address these common demographic denominators and then move higher up the Hierarchy of Needs. Satisfaction of the multitudes with efficient and sufficient opportunities both in terms of education and livelihood is the only way to guarantee a robust growth regime.

Leveling it out

Sustainable growth, how much ever emphasized, seems to be overlooked. Our planet is deteriorating at an incredible pace and weather anomalies are just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to its effects. Humankind is becoming weaker, newer more fierce diseases are threatening us and pollution has made life difficult for all save a few. South Asia is extremely vulnerable to these symptoms with its teeming urban poor, low lying regions, food shortages and lack of healthcare facilities et al. It is appalling to see the manner of growth the countries are prioritizing with primary focus only on revenue generation and fiscal consolidation. At what cost? When countries favor the services sector more than the manufacturing and primary sector, what they are essentially developing is paper money, without bringing into creation any new asset or any extra welfare. We agree that this is also important, but the question is, to whom is it important?

When the entire population of a country is fed and healthy and they all have at least an opportunity of earning a daily wage, then it is important. We refuse to believe that when about half the population of the sub-continent is starving and living on the streets, the government should be convinced on converting agricultural land into military bases and SEZ’s or forests into amusement parks. We cannot emulate the growth regimes of the developed countries or bend to their whims at such a huge opportunity cost, only to fill private coffers.

Governments cannot indiscriminately mine underground resources just because it is cheaper than in developed countries and more so because all that matters is their terms in office lasting five years. When such short-term campaigns are initiated, they are bound to eventually run out of steam, causing fluctuations in growth rates that we see today. Instead a more far-sighted approach would be a ecologically maintainable and efficient exploitation of each and every resource of a country in a way that doesn’t lead to burnouts. As a result, countries can enjoy moderate to high rates of real growth and at the same time be assured that it is protected from vagaries of international relations.

One must remember that the country doesn’t have a ‘term’ and nor does our planet.  More importantly, our planet does not care about GDP growth rates and profits. What people don’t see is that competitive policy though beneficial for the country, is not in the interests of the world in general. We also do not think that such a model is prudent and following it is like digging one’s proverbial grave. We must strive to ensure longevity of our species and of our world.

Shriraj Patil

Shriraj Patil

Intern at InPRA
is an economics undergraduate from the city of Mumbai. He has secured several academic awards and also been awarded by the Commonwealth for his writing skills. Certified by the National Stock Exchange and the Bombay Stock Exchange, he actively studies the impact of the financial sector on the economy. He has recently started analyzing economic and political policy questions and research concerns.Wanting to now engage with an IR Master’s degree and the desire to hone the skills required to do so has compelled him to join InPRA. He hopes to learn and grow with the initiative.
Shriraj Patil

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