Guns instead of ‘Rice’ is South Asia’s preference



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The poor of S, Asia


However, there is no serious LTTE-linked security threat in Sri Lanka’s North-East at present. This perceived threat is a figment of the imagination of some sections of the country’s Opposition and their backers. If these sections are seriously concerned about the security and well being of Sri Lanka, they would do well to figure out as to how the socio-economic grievances of Sri Lankans could be alleviated rather than engage in mindless rabble-rousing. Let them not forget that the limited chances of upward social mobility compelled sections of Sri Lanka’s North-East youth to cultivate a sense of grievance against the state in the sixties and seventies. Very soon this feeling of deprivation led to an open armed revolt against the state.


South Asian governments prefer ‘Guns’ to ‘Rice’. Despite being home to some two thirds of Asia’s poor, South Asia spends $90 billion on defence annually, led by India. Accordingly, development or ‘Rice’ suffers at the hands of what is seen as defence or national security in this region.


The above findings by the South Asia Federation of Accountants which met recently in Lahore may not be particularly new or astonishing but the forum has done well to underscore a glaring shortcoming in governance in South Asia, which is going unchecked by ‘trigger-happy’ states.


However, the continuous neglect of development by South Asia could, of course, prove severely counter-productive in particularly the medium and long terms. Some of the more democratically-oriented political leaders of this region are cognizant of this troubling issue but are, apparently, not in a position to cast aside bilateral power rivalries and arrive at a region-wide consensus to work single-mindedly towards collective regional development. Hopefully, India and Pakistan, on whom regional development depends to a considerable extent, would come to recognize the urgency of moving the region in the direction of development.


But no less a political leader than the late Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan had an enlightened grasp of these questions. In her well known autobiography ‘Daughter of the East’, she points, among other important things, to the dire neglect East Pakistan suffered at the hands of West Pakistan in the run-up to the liberation war in Bangladesh in the early seventies of the century past. The lack of development in East Pakistan is singled out by Bhutto as chief among the reasons for the break-up of Pakistan and the emergence of Bangladesh. Theabsence of development was the reason for the sense of grievance among the people of East Bengal which eventually triggered off the armed revolt by the latter and paved the way for the creation of Bangladesh.


India’s number one security issue was identified as its widespread ‘Maoist’ insurgency by some key personalities in the former Congress government and the revolt in question is fed by India’s poverty. The same developmental factors were at work in North-East Sri Lanka and still constitute a major barrier to the complete normalization of the region. That is, to the degree to which the Lankan state forges ahead with reconstruction, reconciliation and rehabilitation in Sri Lanka’s North-East, to the same extent would normalization materialize in the region.


However, there is no serious LTTE-linked security threat in Sri Lanka’s North-East at present. This perceived threat is a figment of the imagination of some sections of the country’s Opposition and their backers. If these sections are seriously concerned about the security and well being of Sri Lanka, they would do well to figure out as to how the socio-economic grievances of Sri Lankans could be alleviated rather than engage in mindless rabble-rousing. Let them not forget that the limited chances of upward social mobility compelled sections of Sri Lanka’s North-East youth to cultivate a sense of grievance against the state in the sixties and seventies. Very soon this feeling of deprivation led to an open armed revolt against the state. Rather than indulge in wasteful politicking, Sri Lanka’s Opposition would do well to study the material grievances of Sri Lankans and conceive and recommend strategies to manage them.


It is important that Sri Lanka thinks on these things because the regional accountants’ forum referred to previously has singled out Sri Lanka as a success story in poverty alleviation. Sri Lanka’s poor is reportedly down to an ‘astonishing’ two per cent. This may be so, but what is the yardstick of poverty? Is it still the two dollars per day per person criterion prescribed by the World Bank?


These posers need to be raised because currently inflationary pressures make very short work of a person’s or family’s earnings. In an economy primarily driven by market forces, what level of income could be seen as ‘sufficient’? What is a ‘reasonable’ income which could guarantee a satisfactory standard of living? These and many more questions occur to the commentator in the poverty elimination context, which could prove difficult to answer. Moreover, the comparative smallness of Sri Lanka’s population needs to be focused on when discussing these issues. The poverty elimination/alleviation challenge in Sri Lanka is not of the same magnitude as that in India or Pakistan, for example.


Considering these and many more vexatious issues, it is tragic that South Asia should prefer ‘Guns’ to ‘Rice’. The comment could be trotted out that ‘national security’ is as vital as or, indeed, synonymous with societal well being. Such notions were rife in Sri Lanka at the time of the Mahinda Rajapaksa (MR) regime.


One of the issues in Sri Lanka is that there is no robust debate on these questions locally. Such debate and discussion was hardly permitted in the MR years. Hopefully, this situation would change for the better now.


It needs to be seen by South Asia that ‘national security’ is synonymous with Human Security. A state cannot be rendered secure by providing for only its defence needs. This line of thinking would result in a country having a huge defence budget with a consequent fattening of that country’s defence establishment, but the public concerned would suffer steady deprivation and impoverishment, as a result of funds for development being siphoned to defence.


What is beyond the comprehension of the intelligent observer is the tendency on the part of governments, in particularly our part of the world, to repeat mistakes. The ‘lessons of history’ are apparently never learnt. If governments overlook the economic and social requirements of the people in the name of what is seen as national security and defence, national instability and social crises would sooner rather than later envelope these states.


This is the lesson that the ‘Arab Spring’, for example, offers us. The overlooking of youth unemployment by Middle East governments eventually led to unprecedented governmental crises in some the countries concerned and none of any consequence has emerged winner from the resulting turmoil. States would do well to be acutely concerned about the ‘Rice’ needs of their people.


 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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