Our recent poll eliciting the ten most unacceptable things in South Asia today is open to another interpretation – it tells a tale of three nested deprivations.
The first deprivation is absolute – characterized by people existing below a level that is unacceptable in any self-respecting society. We had identified the dimensions of this absolute deprivation some time back – lack of an adequate amount of food, water, hygiene, housing, and education. All these are attributes that are associated with an inadequate income.
The second deprivation pertains to the inadequacy of rights – the right to physical safety, dignity, justice, and employment based on merit. This pertains only partly to inadequate income. It is also related to the imbalance of power. Political equality (the right to vote) does not translate into civil equality – the more powerful can still trample over the rights of the less powerful. We have mentioned this a number of times in highlighting the peculiar nature of democracy in South Asia that has preceded any kind of social revolution. The power imbalance remains largely unaffected and is changing very slowly. Not being part of the network of power leaves individuals open to discrimination and abuse even when they have adequate incomes.
The third deprivation relates to the inability to realize the full potential of human capabilities. This can go beyond the lack of income and power. The clearest example of this is the discussion we have been having about the status of women in South Asian society. The message from the discussion, despite its terrible overtones, is not that women are paralyzed in South Asia – after all more and more women are entering the labor force and participating in politics. But this participation is within a space that is seriously constrained.
Women have to function in society conscious of the fact that they are vulnerable and susceptible to harassment. This feeling of vulnerability affects many decisions – where to go, how long to stay out, what to wear, etc. – that limit fulfillment in small ways. Over time this mode of existence is internalized and even the consciousness of what life could be like without such constraints is lost. A glimmer of this realization comes through in the surprise of how greatly the sense of freedom can be enhanced by the protection of a women’s-only train. It provides a hint of what life can be like when it can be experienced to the full potential of human capabilities.
These three deprivations suggest the challenges that need to be addressed – an end to absolute poverty, the equality of civil rights, and the full exercise of human capabilities. There is a very long way to go in South Asia and it starts with the realization that none of these deprivations has any kind of moral justification. And because there is no moral justification we have to ask ourselves why they are not at the top of our social and political agendas. Why have these deprivations been tolerated for so long?
While the above is a broad generalization, it is also the case that there are pockets in South Asia where there has been considerable progress along several dimensions. We need to assess the reasons that might underlie the faster progress in such pockets and would welcome feedback from readers who have more knowledge about this subject.