Need to declare war on poverty in South Asia

PM Modi addresses a rally at Kozhikode bringing into focus the need for banishing poverty from South Asia
PM Modi addresses a rally at Kozhikode bringing into focus the need for banishing poverty from South Asia

Prime Minister Narendra Modi highlighted a generally ignored issue in the course of his recent speech at Kozhikode while addressing the people of Pakistan and the government in Islamabad separately, obviously for tactical reasons. He tried to bring into sharp focus the need for banishing poverty from India, Pakistan and the other South Asia countries. Poverty is the most dangerous common enemy of the people of South Asia, but it is not getting the attention it deserves.

Modi told Pakistan that instead of spending its resources and energy on exporting terrorism, it should get ready to fight a war against poverty, unemployment, illiteracy and infant mortality instead. “I want to say that India is ready for a war… India is ready for a war on poverty. Let both countries fight to see who would eradicate poverty first… I want to tell the youth of Pakistan, let’s have a war on ending unemployment… I want to call out to the children in Pakistan, let’s declare war on illiteracy. Let’s see who wins. Let’s declare war on infant mortality and maternal deaths,” Modi said.

Cross-border terrorism, being used by Pakistan as an instrument of state policy in a disguised manner, will not bring any gain for it as the experience shows so far. It has brought only ridicule to Islamabad and weakened efforts to eliminate poverty.

Poverty and terrorism or militancy feed on each other. Terrorist outfits find their recruits mostly from poverty-stricken families, keeping aside some exceptions here and there. If India and Pakistan develop stakes in the removal of poverty and decide that any issue that comes in the way of achieving this ideal objective will be ignored, the face of South Asia will change considerably.

Poverty can push people to any kind of dirty and destructive activity. Terrorism camouflaged as jihadi activity becomes more attractive as those recruited are handsomely paid to accomplish the task assigned to them. Remove poverty and see the result: terrorism will die its natural death. Any area where terrorism is nurtured cannot remain stable and peaceful, which will lead to disappearance of economic activity and foreign direct investment. Terrorism has proved to be a two-edged weapon: if it causes loss to the country targeted by terrorist masterminds, it weakens the economy of the country where terrorist camps are located. This realisation must have dawned on Pakistan by now.

All programmes or movements aimed at removing poverty get derailed because of terrorist activity. The latest example is that of the South Asian Association for Regional Cooperation (SAARC) which has suffered a big jolt in wake of the terrorist attack at Uri, resulting in the death of 18 Indian Army personnel. Its scheduled meeting at Islamabad has been called off because every member-country except Pakistan refused to attend it.

SAARC had come into being as an idea primarily to bring about faster economic development and tackling poverty in the entire South Asian region. However, the experiment has so far failed to produce the desired results mainly because of the terror factor, which has been strengthening the wall of suspicion between India and Pakistan.

Yet, instead of appreciating Modi’s call for focusing on poverty, those on the other side of the Indo-Pak divide have become overactive to flaunt statistics to prove that a higher percentage of people are poor in India than in Pakistan. The Nation, a popular English language daily of the Nawa-e-Waqt group of newspapers, pointed out in an editorial after Modi’s Kozhikode speech: “India’s problems with widespread and crippling poverty are well documented. It has the world’s largest population living in slums; a recent government survey estimates that 62% of Mumbai lives in slums – a figure above 10 million – that eclipses the population of several major Pakistani cities. Even on global indexes of percentage population living below the poverty line, India’s 12.4 is above Pakistan’s 8.3. Similar numbers are evident in the other fields nominated by the Indian Prime Minister — comparable figures, and India’s worst far outnumbering Pakistan’s worst.”

Express Tribune of Pakistan said, “Against a stricter $3.10 a day poverty line — which the World Bank updated from the previous $2 a day criteria — 58% of India’s population or 708 million Indians live in poverty compared to 45% of Pakistan’s population or 76.5 million Pakistanis. The number of poor Indians, according to this level, is three-and-a-half times more than Pakistan’s total population.”

Pakistanis forget the fact that India has emerged as a major software power of the world and has highly rated educational institutions like the IITs and the IIMs. It has world class hospitals, both in the private and public sectors, which attract patients even from developed countries.

Indulging in jingoism will take us nowhere. India and Pakistan must admit that they are home to a large number of poor of the world. Arguing that one country is better than the other cannot provide the answer to the challenges posed by endemic poverty in entire South Asia. We should be ashamed of the fact that these two countries are nuclear powers but a fairly large percentage of their population does not have enough to eat and lacks healthcare facilities particularly in the rural areas. Illiteracy and unemployment are among the major problems they face. The condition of the people in villages and urban slums is pitiable.

Arguing that one country is better than the other cannot provide the answer to challenges posed by endemic poverty in entire South Asia

The challenge thrown up by Modi should be accepted in a positive way and as a crucial issue, which must be taken up by both India and Pakistan as their top priority in the larger interest of the people. Since unemployment is a major issue in both countries, their growth-related schemes must aim at generating as much job opportunities as possible.

Addressing a conference at New Delhi’s South Asian University some time ago, former Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said almost every country in South Asia achieved robust economic growth in the recent past, yet the region has the largest concentration of the world’s poor, uneducated and ill-educated. “While the thrust on the means to generate accelerated growth is quite legitimate, we do need to go beyond it and ask why significant growth in the South Asian countries in the recent past has not translated into rapid poverty reduction and improvement in human development of the majority of the population.”

Today a large part of our resources are used for meeting threats from each other. This should not happen in a region where people need maximum job avenues, world class colleges and universities, hospitals equipped with latest machines, enough houses at affordable prices and enough to eat. Growth at a rapid pace is not possible if we allow individuals or organisations to implement their own agenda on any pretext as can be seen in Pakistan. Islamabad needs to crush those involved in terrorism on any pretext with a view to creating an environment conducive to faster economic growth in South Asia.

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