Development and inequality: the case of South Asia
—Hassan N Gardezi
In Pakistan the existence of the caste system is altogether denied on the ground that in its philosophical rationale and ritual practices it is a distinctly Hindu institution. However, it is impossible to visualise Muslims of the subcontinent in isolation from their Hindu ancestral and cultural heritage
South Asian countries took a head start in the development race just after World War II when the European colonial empires were breaking apart. Some of the East Asian countries were still engaged in civil wars, or recovering from the ravages of World War II and Japanese occupation. In addition to the advantage of a head start, Pakistan and its South Asian neighbours had inherited intact a modicum of modern institutional and physical infrastructure left behind by the British colonial administration. The newly independent state of India was also equipped with a modest but significant industrial base developed during colonial times.
Then how is it that South Asian countries, including Pakistan, not only lost their advantage but fell far behind the East Asian countries in economic and social development? That is the question I would like to explore briefly.
Despite its early edge in the development race, South Asia today is home to the largest concentration of the world’s poor. In statistical terms the region has the highest incidence of poverty in absolute numbers as well as in proportion to its population, compared to any other regional group of countries. The population of the absolutely poor living in South Asia is 43 percent compared to 14 percent in East Asia — excluding China — 24 percent in Latin America and 39 percent in sub-Saharan Africa.
Pakistan, Bangladesh and India, the three largest countries of the South Asian subcontinent, continue to score some of the lowest ranks on the Human Development Index (HDI), a composite scale of economic and social development produced annually by the UN Development Programme (UNDP). Among the 169 countries ranked by the UNDP in its November 2010 report, Bangladesh, Pakistan and India hold the ranks of 129, 125 and 119 respectively, with the highest rank of number one going to the European country of Norway.
Several explanations have been offered to account for this anomalous situation, some of which raise quite valid points. It is said, for example, that the US-inspired paradigm of development promoted worldwide from the 1950s to 1970 and its neo-liberal globalisation version thereafter, was too flawed to produce any positive results by way of economic development and general prosperity in South Asia. The involvement of India and Pakistan in their destructive and wasteful wars and resultant diversion of resources from their projects of development is another important argument forwarded to explain the lack of material progress in these countries.
While the factors singled out in such explanations have no doubt contributed to the dismal record of economic and social development in South Asia, I would suggest that there is yet another and more fundamental impediment to material progress in the region. This impediment consists of the uniquely South Asian phenomenon of structural inequality built into the fabric of the entire subcontinental society.
Although the mainstream social science literature on development bypasses this deep-rooted structural feature of the subcontinental South Asian society, it is well recognised in the writings of politically active intellectuals and socially conscious academics, particularly those who have lived and worked in any of the south Asian countries.
It is significant to note that Jawaharlal Nehru was strongly convinced that India will never be genuinely free unless its leaders addressed the country’s age-old problem of inequality going back to Vedic times. In his 1929 presidential address to the Lahore session of the Indian National Congress he observed, “Great as was the success of India in evolving a stable society, she failed in a vital particular, and because she failed in this, she fell and remains fallen. No solution was found for the problem of inequality. India deliberately ignored this and built up its social structure on inequality.”
That structural inequality observed by Nehru was obviously a reference to the unique caste system of the subcontinent, which, combined with the evolving class system of the urbanising industrial cities, remains pervasive and heavily in place even today. After independence Indian legislators placed certain clauses in the preamble of the constitution prohibiting discrimination on the basis of caste, but this remains no more than a paper declaration. In Pakistan the existence of the caste system is altogether denied on the ground that in its philosophical rationale and ritual practices it is a distinctly Hindu institution. However, it is impossible to visualise Muslims of the subcontinent in isolation from their Hindu ancestral and cultural heritage, the people with whom they have lived in close contact for centuries.
The building blocks of the caste system of inequality — the hereditary division of labour, the zaat endogamy, restrictions on intermixing, and status hierarchies — are as well established and strong in Muslim Pakistan as in Hindu India.
There is also the matter of retribution for crossing the caste boundaries illustrated so poignantly in the now world-famous case of Mukhtaran Mai. A young woman of Pakistan’s southern Punjab village belonging to the lower kami zaat, Mukhtaran was gang-raped by upper zaat Mastoi men because they suspected her brother to be consorting with a girl of their lineage. I have no systematic data but it will be no surprise if beliefs in caste superiority are also behind the increasing incidence of honour killings in Pakistan as the traditional patterns of gender segregation becomes less practical to enforce under changing economic and demographic pressures.
Structured inequality is not any weaker in Pakistan and its erstwhile component of Bangladesh because the majority of the people in these countries subscribe to the Islamic religion. There are, however, brighter spots in South Asia where weaker inequalities of caste and class coincide with stronger economic and human development indicators. The Indian state of Kerala is one of these political jurisdictions, where for the first time in the world, a communist party was democratically elected to rule in 1957. Kerala today is the most class and gender equitable place in South Asia
, accompanied by the lowest incidence of poverty and highest level of literacy in the region. Its rate of infant mortality, a very sensitive indicator of the general health of a people, is below 15 compared to over 55 for India as a whole and over 70 for Pakistan.
The other spot is the Buddhist state of Sri Lanka where the caste system is weak and which was able to maintain a greater measure of control over its development policies. Despite the ravages of a prolonged civil war in the country, on the HDI Sri Lanka has consistently ranked much higher than India, Pakistan and Bangladesh.
The problem of eradicating mass poverty is compounded in so far as the development paradigms emanating from Washington and pursued faithfully by technocrats of Pakistan, India or for that matter any other country, have always been of the ‘one size fits all’ type. Their ideological commitment to promote global capitalism overrides the constraints of local realities. In the specific context of Pakistan, it is not hard to conclude that no development project is going to succeed in the long run that does not address the problem of structural inequality.
The writer is Professor Emeritus of Sociology and Anthropology at Algoma University, Canada. He can be reached at email@example.com