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Inequality In South Asia

February 17, 2022, at 3:01 pm

-By SAAPE Secretariat

Inequality on a historical march is even more rising on a world scale and South Asia is no exception. South Asia has been appropriating a significantly large share of global income. During the last decade, the share of income poor in South Asia has increased, despite the share of multidimensional poverty showing only a marginal decline. Multi-dimensional poverty refers to deprivation of more than one dimension such as health, education, living standards, etc.

According to studies such as Bourguigon & Morrison, Inequality among World Citizens: 1820-1992 published in 2002, the global poverty rate dramatically dropped from 94% (1820) to 10.7% (2013) during the last two centuries. Strangely enough, South Asia’s share of global poor has increased from 21.3% to 33.4% during the period of 1990-2013, only ahead of Sub-Saharan Africa which accounts for the largest share (50.7%).This despite the fact that  the number of poor people living in South Asia actually fell by 248.8 million during 1990-2013.

All accepted standard indicators, viz. the Gini Coefficient, Quintile and Palma ratios points to acute inequalities in the region. Several studies and reports reveal the absence of equitable access to resources, jobs, market and development. A deadly combination of these factors has resulted in a disproportionate share of the poor people compared to other regions of the world. According to the World Bank, the quality education received by the poor, and access to secondary school for girls, remain important challenges. The same applies to access to health services and sanitation, with rural areas which are at serious disadvantage.

This serious growth of inequality in South Asia is a result of government policies and programmes that benefit only a handful of rich leaving behind a large section of society who are denied access to basic human rights and needs. Existing welfare policies, practically negligible have been vastly inadequate to improve the lives of the marginalized people, the millions suffering at the bottom for generations. Poverty and exclusion are the outcomes of the exclusive policies of the states as well as parastatal agencies favouring the rich and neglecting the poor and vulnerable groups. The fruits of the economic gains have been limited to the elite who have monopolistic access to resources and market participation. Not only have public policies in South Asia failed to deal with structural inequalities, but they have also been constantly shaped and reshaped to serve a minority at the top (the 1%).

Extreme inequalities of wealth are destroying much of the region as in other parts of the planet. The region is in the throes of a downward spiral as disparities of wealth and power compound and worsens. While the economy surges, inequality subverts democracy, culture and security with a tiny elite at the top owning the wealth almost entirely. This is most visible in the urban landscapes. A number of studies show that class, ethnicity, religious and caste inequalities represent the growing axis of residential segregation in urban South Asia. The expanding middle class and rapid urbanisation in South Asian countries also corresponds to the widening of income gap, which is manifested in growing unemployment, rural-urban migration and slum-dwelling, where millions are deprived of the basic amenities to life.

Most South Asian countries are ranked low in the Gender Inequality Index (GII). Indicators like average years of schooling, per-capita income and labour force participation rates indicate that women in the region lag significantly behind in comparison to men. One in every two women in South Asia faces violence in her home. There is significant gender discrimination between a girl child and a boy child. In South Asia, there are 50 million fewer women in the population. Girls and women in South Asia die prematurely through neglect and violence. 56 percent of women in South Asia are illiterate and one third of all maternal deaths in the world occur in the region.

South Asia has the world’s most skewed gender wage gap in terms of income inequality by gender. This region falls among the few regions in the world where the gender labour force participation gap is both tremendously large and continuously growing. Gender gaps in labour market participation is very wide in South Asia. It is anticipated to remain so in the near future, primarily due to the exceedingly low participation rates of women in the labour market Implicit in this trend, there are apprehensions that owing to restrictive gender and cultural norms, women in South Asia are more constrained in terms of their choice to seek paid employment.

South Asia has emerged fast as one of the most unequal regions of the world. Earlier, it was believed the size of economies was inadequate to ensure a dignified and decent living for its high population so as to bring prosperity in the region. However, this is not the case so, anymore. The last three decades have witnessed huge economic growth and interestingly, has been coupled with a surge of inequality, too. Interesting changes occurred in South Asia between 1980 and 2015, Afghanistan moved from a status of low inequality to medium inequality; Bangladesh moved from medium inequality to high inequality; though Nepal, Pakistan and Sri Lanka remained within the medium inequality range, Sri Lanka was at the border of high inequality; India moved from high inequality to very high inequality and both Bhutan and; Maldives moved from very high inequality to medium inequality.

Inequalities are expanded by the democratic deficit in the region and the prevailing neo-liberal regime, despite all criticism generated by its impact. Proponents of neo-liberalism take advantage of poverty, unemployment and periodic economic crises and blame it on labour unions, the state, and a multitude of social practices rooted in culture and history. They prescribe and adopt market-friendly policies that includes clipping trade-unions helping employers to hire and fire at will; privatisation of state and public-sector enterprises, abolition of protectionist measures for both markets and the capital. The international institutions, especially, trade and financial institutions, are self-appointed to oversee this process for the good of the world, and particularly for the good of the poor. Needless to say, all these exacerbate the prevailing inequality in the region.

Inequality in the region is not incidental but structural, the outcome of a state system driven by pro-rich and pro-elite legal, regulatory and related institutional setups. The need of the hour is rethinking in dealing with structural inequalities – both economic and extra economic. South Asian countries need to thoroughly revamp and reorganise their welfare policies to address these structural causes. This needs to be changed towards people-centric progressive provisions both in the constitution as well as law. Universal access to basic services and genuine equal opportunities for all should form the cornerstone of the process to form an equal society. The state must guarantee access to land, water and other natural resources that are vital to sustain people’s livelihood.