By: Farooq Tariq
The recent devastating flood, affecting the lives of over 20 million in Pakistan, has once again uncovered the severe poverty that people are facing. Many hundreds of thousands fled their mud homes in a hurry, taking just a trunk, a few clothes and pottery and maybe a donkey, cow or a buffalo.
The much-touted claims of economic growth and progress by successive civilian and military governments exclude millions of people languishing in hopeless poverty. This is the situation persistent throughout all South Asian countries without exception. Under the influence of neoliberal formulations, governments no longer talk of the “abolition” of poverty or its “elimination” but only of its “alleviation.”  The number of poor is increasing in all these countries.
According to the Human Development Report 2009, Afghanistan is ranked 132 out of 182 countries; Bangladesh is 112, Pakistan 101 and Nepal in 99th position. This number only indicates the “absolute poor”–those unable to meet their daily nutritional requirements calculated in calories. The number of poor would be far higher if a dignified quality of life is considered. Large sections of the population–easily the majority–are deprived of basic necessities including adequate shelter, clothing, education and health services, etc. They have almost no access to resources. Studies now indicate that the problem of poverty, even in countries like India that boasts of substantial economic growth, is persistent.
According to Pakistan’s Planning Commission (2009), between 2005-2008 the poverty rate jumped from 23.9% to 37.5%. They calculate that while in 2005 there were 35.5 million people living below the poverty line, just three years later the number stood at more than 64 million. That is, out of 160 million, 64 million people have been plunged into the poverty pool. Unemployment has increased and 40% of the urban population lives in slum areas. Reducing social sector spending has increasing poverty and reduced the standard of living. Moreover the recent floods have devastated sections of the country. It is estimated that at least $43 billion will be needed to rebuild Pakistan’s economic and infrastructural loss. The United Nation appeal to raise $2 billion for flood victims, if successful, will make only a diminutive difference.
However, there is a race among the governments of South Asia to prove statistically that poverty is declining.  Sometimes even non-governmental agencies associated with privileged groups rush to tell us that poverty is on the decline. Under the General Musharaf dictatorship, we heard many times how things are changing in favor of the poor and that the per capita income is ever increasing. This is a problematic proposition. The basis on which the “poverty line” is calculated is arbitrary and open to manipulation.
Official sources define poverty in terms of ability /capacity of a person to purchase the minimum food “basket” necessary to provide the minimum number of calories required to stay alive. The international standard of 2400 calories a day has been slimmed down to 2100 in South Asia, supposedly to suit climate conditions and body build. While a calory count can be useful for statistical purposes, it is not accurate for the real lives of millions. Unfortunately the “growth and progress” debate in several South Asian countries tend to hide poor and vulnerable people.
The economies of the South Asian countries are structurally adjusted by neoliberal orthodoxy in order to be more integrated into the world market and its economy. One sees the increased operations of global capital within these countries, with minimum or few restrictions. But the free flow of finance capital and the intervention of the World Bank, IMF and WTO did not reduce poverty. On the contrary, it has increased the number of poor as well as given rise to greater inequality.  Although this can be seen throughout South Asia, the disparity is very glaring in Pakistan. A section of society that is somewhat wider than the traditional elite enjoys an unprecedented level of income.
Neoliberalism has deprived people of their basic right to food, education, and jobs. It has also aggravated hunger and death along with the plunder of the earth and all its natural resources. For the majority, the policies pursued by the rulers of the South Asian countries have created conditions of exclusion, marginalization and the denial of rights, justice and democratic freedom.
The current economic trends have plunged agriculture, still the source of the income for the majority, into a crisis. This is particularly acute for the peasantry that cultivates the land. In major South Asian countries the feudal system remains intact, thus paving the way for more bonded labor and slavery.  All the tasks of modernizing the society remain unsolved as the ruling elite have failed miserably in developing countries on more just and democratic basis. The achievements of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in South Asia are minimal; there is little hope that the majority of these goals will be achieved by 2015.
If we look at the gender dimension of poverty, we see that the women of South Asia have a disproportionately lower level of participation in the world’s labor force. Since women have less access to education, this leads women to lower earning power. Gender discrimination is a stark fact of like that begins even before birth, with female infanticide, and continues throughout the life of South Asia women. Here is where we find the highest numbers of female illiterates in the world.
Displacement is a major problem for the more vulnerable section of the population. It may be caused by armed conflicts of various types, ranging from internecine warfare to civil war, the war on terror or to counter insurgency operations.  Development programs as well as natural disasters displace millions. During the recent flood over 10 million people were forced to leave their homes; in October 2005 it was catastrophic because of an earthquake. In 2009 a military operation against religious fanatics in the Swat valley resulted in 3.5 million people evacuating their homes for over three months. All government claims to provide timely relief and rehabilitation did not materialize. Many repeatedly asked: “Where is the government?”
All South Asian countries have altered their economic policies, political arrangements and foreign policy stances to suit the interests of dominant industrialized nations, often under the direction of the multilateral financial institutions such as World Bank, IMF and WTO. Instead of taking responsibility for these failures, both the World Bank and IMF are now blaming the the countries for having poor institutions, bad governance and corrupt practices. “Jobless growth” in particular is being blamed on “rigid” labor market institutions and resistance to globalization. The majority of the workforce, both men and women, are employed in the rapidly swelling unorganized informal sector, characterized by uncertain wages and job insecurity. With virtual no legal protection or unionization, workers in these sectors are vulnerable to exploitation.
According to the Human Development Report 2009, the poorest 10 percent in Pakistan earn only 3.9% of the country’s Gross Domestic Product while the richest 10% have 26.5%. The situation is far worse in Nepal where the top 10% earn 40.4% of the country’s GDP.
With the neoliberal agenda, poverty eradication is at the mercy of the free market. We have had enough experience after thirty years of neoliberalism, and we know this is an impossible goal. All the advice by IMF, World Bank and WTO on tackling poverty with this agenda has produced the opposite results. The advice these institutions offer is poison we cannot take.
The principle issues before all the people of the region are: survival with dignity, democracy, sovereign independence, against the anti-people trend of neoliberalism, corporate globalization, unfair trade practices, debts, militarization, fundamentalism, gender injustice, armed conflicts, erosion of democracy, labor exploitation, unjust access to natural resources, and feminization of poverty. The solution to these problems–at least on conceptual level–can no longer be confined to the national level, let alone a local or sectoral one.  A lasting solution can only be regional, to be sought, forged and implemented through a struggle at a regional—that is, South Asian–level in cooperation with the thought and struggle of the toiling masses the world over.
The reemergence of new politics requires the construction of new kinds of social and political institutions. The new politics are not a “state” but the affirmation of the state as an instrument of the people’s power, people’s democracy and people’s empowerment. It also means reaffirmation of the state’s obligation to seek justice for the people from where it, according to democratic traditions, drives its legitimacy and power. The alternative politics also needs to challenge the development paradigm that argues for the market as the only appropriate answer to the problem of economic development.
Focusing on the state is not enough. Global capitalism is no longer identified with one country. It cannot be resisted with isolated actions that are confined to individual countries. Therefore the countries of South Asia are in a need today of a new radical imagination. The immediate struggle will focus on the question of survival, sustenance as well as economic and social rights. The goal of a new universal culture and a new internationalism will be a necessary component of this new vision.