South Asia: A regional `new politics' needed to challenge neoliberal agenda

October 14, 2010 -- Fisherfolk rally for debt cancellation, Karachi.

By Farooq Tariq

October 2, 2010 -- The recent devastating flood, affecting the lives of more than 20 million people in Pakistan, has once again revealed the severe poverty that people of Pakistan are facing. The only property that many hundreds of thousands were left with after fleeing their mud homes perhaps was just a trunk, few clothes and pottery and may be a donkey, cow or a buffalo.

The much-touted claims of economic growth and progress by successive civilian and military governments has excluded millions of people languishing in hopeless poverty. This is the situation persistent in all South Asian countries without exception. Under the influence of neoliberal formulations, no longer do governments talk of "abolition" or "elimination" of poverty, but only its "alleviation". The increase in the number of poor peopleis common in all countries.

According to the United Nations Human Development Report 2009, Afghanistan is ranked 132 out of 182 countries; Bangladesh is 112, Pakistan 101 and Nepal in 99th position. This only indicates the "absolute poor" -- those who are unable to meet their daily nutritional requirements calculated in terms of calories. The number of poor would be far higher if other aspects of a dignified quality of life were considered. Large sections of the population -- easily the majority -- are deprived of basic necessities of life, such as adequate shelter, clothing, education and health services. They have almost no access to resources. Studies now indicate that the problem of poverty, even in countries -- like India -- that boast substantial economic growth, is persistent.

According to the Pakistan Planning Commission (2009), the poverty rate has jumped from 23.9 to 37.5 per cent from 2005 to 2008. The commission has estimated that in 2005 there were 35.5 million people living below the poverty line, but in 2008 their number increased to more than 64 million, out of 160 million.

Unemployment has also increased. Moreover, 40 per cent of the urban population lives in slum areas. Reduction in social sector spending is increasing poverty and has reduced the standard of living in Pakistan. After the recent floods it is estimated that at least US$43 billion will be needed to rebuild the economic and infrastructure losses. The United Nations appeal to raise $2 billion for those affected by the flood, even if successful, will make only a tiny difference.

Statistical race

There is a race among the governments of South Asia to prove statistically a decline in poverty. States, governments and even non-governmental agencies, particularly those associated with privileged groups, rush to tell us that poverty is on the decline. Under the dictatorship of Pakistan's General Musharraf, we heard many times how things were changing in favour of the poor and that the per capita income was ever increasing. This is a problematic proposition, because the basis on which the imaginary income on which the "poverty line" is calculated is arbitrary and can be conveniently manipulated.

Poverty was defined by official sources in terms of ability/capacity of a person to purchase the minimum foodstuffs necessary to provide the minimum number of calories required to stay alive. The numbers of calories was scaled down from the international standards of 2400 per day to suit the conditions of climate and of people's "body build" in South Asia, to 2100 calories per day. Such numbers can only be useful for statistical purposes, not for the real lives of millions of people. Unfortunately the "growth and progress" debate in several South Asian countries tend to hide the poor and vulnerable people.

South Asian countries' economies are structurally adjusted by neoliberal orthodoxy, directed towards a closer integration with the world market and economy. One sees increased operations of global capital within these countries with minimal or no restrictions and free flow of finance capital with the intervention World Bank, International Monetary Fund and World Trade Organization. This has not resulted in the reduction or eradication poverty; on the contrary, it has increased the numbers of the poor and the disparity between rich and poor. The disparity is very glaring in all South Asian countries, especially in Pakistan. A section of society, somewhat wider than the traditional elite, enjoys unprecedented levels of income.

Neoliberalism has deprived people of their basic rights to food, education, jobs. It has aggravated hunger and increased death by way of starvation. It facilitates the plunder of the Earth of its natural resources. The policies persued by the rulers of South Asian countries have created conditions of exclusion, marginalisation and the denial of rights, and lack of justice and democratic freedom for the majority of the people.

The current economic trends have plunged agriculture, which is the source of income for the majority in these countries, and particularly the cultivating peasantry, into deep crisis. The feudal system remains intact in major countries in South Asia, thus paving the way for more bonded labour and slavery. All the tasks of modernising society remain unsolved, and the ruling elite has failed miserably in developing their countries on a more just and democratic basis. The achievement of Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) in South Asia are minimal, hence there is strong doubt that the majority of these goals will be achieved by the deadline of 2015.

Looking at the gender dimension of poverty, the women of South Asia have a disproportionately lower level of participation in the labour force compared to the rest of the world. Less education and skill levels of women lead to lower earning capacity.

Gender discrimination starts even before birth -- with high rates of female infanticide -- and continues throughout life. South Asia still contains the highest rates of female illiteracy in the world.

Displacement, exploitation

Displacement is a major problem the vulnerable face. Armed conflicts of various kinds and types -- from internecine warfare, to civil war, to the war on terror, to counterinsurgency -- form one set of reasons. "Development" programs displace millions. Natural disasters are yet another major cause of internal displacement of people in large numbers. The recent Pakistan flood forced at one time more than 10 million people to leave their homes. Earlier, in 2009, a military operation against religious fanatics in the Swat valley resulted in 3.5 million people leaving their homes for more than three months. It was the same in the case of the catastrophic October 2005 earthquake. All promises by the government to provide timely relief and rehabilitation did not materialise. Many ask the question again and again, "Where is the government?".

All South Asian countries have altered their economic policies, political arrangements and foreign policy stances to suit the interests of the dominant industrialised countries, often under the direction of the multilateral financial institutions, such as World Bank, IMF and WTO. Instead of taking responsibility for these failures, the World Bank and IMF are now blaming the victim countries for having poor institutions, bad governance and corrupt practices. Jobless growth in particular is being blamed on rigid labour market institutions and resistance to globalisation. The majority of the workforce, both men and women, are employed in the rapidly swelling and unorganised informal sector, characterised by uncertain wages and job security. With virtually no legal protection or unionisation, workers in these sectors are vulnerable to exploitation.

According to the Human Development Report 2009, the share of expenditure of the poorest 10 per cent in Pakistan is only 3.9 per cent as compared to 26.5 per cent by the richest 10 per cent. The situation is far worse in Nepal, where the ratio is 2.7 per cent to 40.4 per cent.

The neoliberal agenda leaves the question of poverty eradication at the mercy of the free market and competition. This is a false road. After 30 years of neoliberalism all the recipes and advice by the IMF, World Bank and WTO to tackle the poverty have resulted in the opposite.

We have to do away with these institutions.

New politics needed

The principal issues before all the people of the region include: survival with dignity; democracy and independence; the anti-people trends of neoliberalism, corporate globalisation, unfair trade practices and debt; militarisation; fundamentalism; gender injustice and the feminisation of poverty; armed conflicts; labour exploitation; unjust access to natural resources. These problems cannot be solved at the national level, let alone at the local or sectoral levels. The lasting solution can only be regional, to be sought, forged and implemented through struggle at a regional South Asian level through cooperation by thought and struggle by the toiling masses.

The reemergence of a new politics requires the construction of new kinds of social and political institutions. The new politics is not an "end of the state" but the affirmation of the state as an instrument of people's power, people's democracy and people's empowerment. It also means reaffirmation of the state's obligation to achieve justice for the people from where it, according to democratic traditions, derives its legitimacy and power. The alternative politics needs to challenge the development paradigm that argues for the market as the only appropriate answer to the problem of economic development.

However, 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 have to focus on the question of survival and sustenance, and on economic and social rights. The goal of a new universal culture and a new internationalism will be necessary component of this new vision.


Information mainly taken from Poverty & Vulnerability Report of South Asia: Narratives of survival and struggles, at

[Paper presented at "The role of market and state in poverty reduction and improving distributive justice" conference, Colombo October 2-3, 2010, jointly organised with the Council of Social Democrats in Sri Lanka and the Friedrich Ebert Stiftung. Farooq Tariq is spokesperson for the Labour Party Pakistan. Visit and]