South Asians for Human Rights

Promoting Democracy, Upholding Human Rights

Published in The Telegraph Nepal on 19 Nov. by Dr. Shreedhar Gautam – Nepal Council of Word Affairs ::

I begin this paper with what Pakistani poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz, said while responding to a question about political chaos in South Asia; ‘My great fear is that nothing will happen. Things will go on the way they are’ (Haq 33). South Asia, containing nearly one-fourth of humanity, has enormous development potential. Few regions can rival South Asia in terms of cultural and religious diversity; impressive civilizations stretching back several millennia, and human dynamism.

But many opportunities for a vital breakthrough for peace have been missed over the last decades, because of poor investment in human capital compared to investment in arms, poor strategies for economic and social development, lack of good governance, elitist power structures and insufficient understanding and attention to poverty reduction. These are the issues that concern everybody wishing to see peace in South Asia. I remember a noted Pakistani author who said, ‘GNP alone cannot say anything about how people are doing, as it tells only how the economy is doing’ (Haq XIV). He meant that economic growth was not enough to alleviate poverty and establish long lasting peace.

Mere economic growth without policies for redistribution, for capacity building and the provision of income-earning opportunities for the poor, would neither be equitable nor sustainable for peace. Now it is felt that human development model should go beyond treating human beings as only a means to a production process. While human productivity is an essential element of economic growth, to treat human beings as only a resource for production process obscures the centrality of people as the ultimate end of development. This paper deals with how human development is concerned not only with building human capabilities through investment in people, but it is also concerned with using those capabilities fully through an enabling framework for growth and employment. The human development model regards economic growth as essential, but pays equal attention to its quality and distribution, its link to human lives and to its sustainability.

Some of the South Asian countries are going through the trauma of conflict and violence because of lack of human development model. The critical difference between an economic growth model and a human development model is that the first focuses exclusively on the expansion of income while the second embraces the enlargement of all human choices: economic, political, social, and cultural. The human development model questions the presumed automatic link between expanding income and expanding human choices. Such a link depends on the quality and distribution of economic growth, and not only on the quantity of such growth.

But such a link between growth and human life has not been created consciously almost in all South Asian countries. There is no definite public policy to spend more on social services, and fiscal policy to redistribute income and assets. Such a deliberate, forward looking and equitable public policy has been lacking also in Nepal, leading to the current state of conflict, violence and human deprivation. Setting up a Human Development Centre in all countries is a must to work on the critical challenges facing the region, whether in Sri Lanka or Bhutan. Likewise, we need to analyse professionally the region’s challenges, such as the magnitude of human deprivation, education challenges, governance crisis, the condition of women, and the impact of globalisation for a sustainable peace.

Our vision for South Asia should provide a road map for the region’s social and economic growth with human security. Every agenda for the region should give focus on human development, reduction of conflicts among countries specially between India and Pakistan, greater economic integration and cooperation among the countries of the region.

Empowerment of women and civil societies, and an efficient and equitable system of governance is another prerequisite for peace. It is more so when the impact of globalisation on South Asia’s economy has become a concern for all thinking people. Poverty, uneducated and unskilled labour force, structural inefficiencies and political instability threaten to hinder progress that a competitive global market promises.

The costs of conflict in South Asia have occupied our mind. We need to advocate for cuts in defence expenditure whether in Nepal, India, Pakistan, or Sri Lanka in order to reduce tension and use the money saved for building peace in the region. We have seen how internal and cross border conflicts have taken a heavy social and political toll on South Asia’s potential for advancement. In our country the cost of internal wars are as costly as the international war between India and Pakistan. If Nepal has been affected by the current conflicts, leading to more unemployment and poverty, India and Pakistan have also suffered huge economic and social costs in terms of insurgency operations and diversions of economic resources from social and economic sectors to the military.

Our experiences prove that major setback for peace in South Asia over the last five decades is due lack of human development and good governance. The region is known in the world for growing corruption, mismanagement, centralized bureaucratic structures and the absence of the rule of law dominating the political, economic, and social landscape. The growing magnitude of poverty in South Asia has become a subject for systematic investigation for all right thinking people. We should ask why countries like Nepal, India, and Bangladesh couldn’t feed their people despite having agriculture, the main stay of economy. The challenges for the future should be around a variety of factors such as search for appropriate technologies, especially targeting small farmers and better management of water resources.

We need to compare the development strategies for South Asia with those of East Asia. The divergence of the development outcomes in the two regions has resulted from several factors, including the emphasis of East Asia on the importance of high savings and investment, open economies, and land reforms. Opinions differ on the philosophies of economic liberalization of East Asia, but on one point all analysts agree: the central role of education, skill development and technology in East Asia’s accelerated growth. Similarly, we need to discuss the need of having the right to development as a human right. The right to development as a human right helps the process of development by allowing all individuals a voice and a part in the process of development. Globally international cooperation is necessary to provide developing countries to foster their development in accordance with the UN charter.

Also, peace cannot be achieved without building people’s capability and providing them with an opportunity to lead a productive life. Along with the imperative of human development, introduction of the concept of human security is also a necessity for peace. Without having peace in hour homes, streets, jobs, communities and environment, we cannot have peace in our entire South Asian region. I agree with what Mahbub ul Haq says; ‘Human security means a child who did not die, a disease that did not spread, an ethnic tension that did not explode, a dissident who was not silenced, a human spirit that was not crushed’ (Haq XIX).

The South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) is slowly beginning to consider issues beyond its previously restricted agenda and modest targets. The key to the success for SAARC depends on the region’s governments to invest generously and thoughtfully in its people, and to embrace new levels of cooperation. As lovers of peace, we need to challenge the leaders of South Asia with a vision to engineer a breakthrough in the region’s development prospects and, in the process, to nurture a shared South Asian ethos.

Peace, democracy and development should go together. Political democracy will lose much of its efficacy without economic democracy. Without certain prerequisites, democracy may not function in poor countries like Nepal and Bangladesh. I agree with what Economist Robert Barrow has to say,’. Below a certain level of income, maintaining democracy becomes a difficult task.’ (27). It has been observed that the concentration of economic power breed concentrations of political power as well. Nepal has been a perfect example of such case. Because of unequal societies in our country, we are always having a centralised political system whether in king’s direct rule or in multiparty democracy. In our case, markets are ruled by oligarchies, making democracy a means to concentrate the political power in few hands. So, right economic conditions are case es for a democratic process. Economist V. Ruttan has opined that ‘tough measures for successful development call for discipline and resistance to the pressures of special interest groups that can be provided only by authoritarian governments’ (27). But the Human Development Report 1991 rejects this and shows that freedom and democracy are entirely consistent with growth and development even at low levels. More recently countries like Venezuela, Malaysia, Costa Rica, Mauritius, and Bolivia done well economically, while remaining democracies. Venezuela and Bolivia have exemplified that democracy as well as socialism can be exercised by focusing on economic growth and human development.

South Asian countries including Nepal can face the challenge for peace and democracy only by solving the crisis of governance. Firstly, good governance depends on effective and representative democratic institutions. All countries except Sri Lanka have embraced parliamentary democracy where parliament is deemed sovereign. Sri Lanka was once a parliamentary democracy but converted to a presidential system in 1978. In some South Asian countries, the prime minister has appropriated considerable executive power. Such power derives less from the formal power of the post and more from the considerable authority exercised by the person of the prime minister. This accumulation of power in the office of the chief executive originates in the weakness of political parties and the erosion in the grassroots strength of ministers, who tend to hold office less on their own political authority and more so on the patronage of the chief executive. In our case, several prime ministers have exemplified the misuse of prime minister’s post, leading to the crisis of governance.

Secondly, the question of the accountability of the political leadership has affected South Asian countries like India and Nepal. The instability of prevailing democratic order in Nepal and India weakened the authority of prime minister in the past far from making prime ministers more responsive and accountable, just as a hostage to the arbitrary sectional demands of members of their coalition. Sher Bahadur Deoba of Nepal and Chandra Shekhar, Deva Gauda, and Indra Kumar Gujaral are some of the examples in this regard.

Thirdly, the degeneration in the governance of political parties in most South Asian countries has become a cause for concern. They are exposed to undemocratic leadership structures, and factions and section coalitions assembled for opportunistic reasons.

Fourthly, the weakness of the political leadership appears to originate in the erosion of the sovereignty of the citizen, upon which democratic governance is ultimately founded. In our case especially sovereignty remains a polite fiction because of the unequal distribution of rights and entitlements amongst citizens. In all South Asian countries, money and force are increasingly influencing access to power. Elevating the sovereignty of the citizens from fiction to reality will be possible only when citizens reassert ther rights. Fifthly, the most serious threat to the democratic process in South Asia lies in the degeneration of democratic institutions. In country after country, the quality of parliamentary discourse has deteriorated. The degeneration in the quality of the legislatures appears to be compounded by the increasingly confrontational style of national politics characteristics of all South Asian countries.

Sixthly, electoral politics in South Asia has increasingly become a rich man’s game. It should be concern to see what measures can be taken to restore democracy in the political system of Nepal and other countries. Another cause of crisis is an attempt to insulate appointments in the upper judiciary from executive influence in Nepal as well as in other countries. Likewise, police services are now increasingly becoming a negotiable commodity in South Asia, where the rich can purchase police intervention or inaction. The poor thus see the police as yet another instrument of oppression and as a source of rights. Throughout South Asia this process of politicisation is taking its toll on the administration, by encouraging corruption and eroding quality.

South Asian countries need representative government at all levels for the establishment of peace. Secondly, devolution of power to local authorities is necessary to make them responsive to popular needs, and thus create peace. Civil societies must be activated because civil activism it is not the exclusive prerogative of political cadres, human rights activists or humanitarians. Likewise, the present approach to politics as an instrument of power and material gain, divorced from ideology, has to be changed. The failure in governance will give rise to the military options, and so all representative governance should avoid giving any pretext for military option. Unrepresentative military regimes can never be a solution to failed governance. So, democracy, human development and good governance should go together for bringing peace for society and saving South Asian countries from further failure.

Works cited:

Barrow, Robert, 1996. Democracy and Growth Chicago: University of Chicago Press. Haq, Khadija, 2002. The South Asian Challenge Karachi: Oxford.

Ibid XIV

Ibid XIX

Ruttan, Vernon, 1991. What Happened to Political Development? Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Text courtesy: NCWA annual journal 2005-6. Thanks NCWA: Ed.