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A violent neighbourhood

Business Standard  |  New Delhi 

An idle mind, it has been wisely said, is a devil's workshop. The point can be illustrated in several ways but altogether the best example is to be found in what is happening in South Asia. The region comprises India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Nepal, Bhutan and Afghanistan. Almost 1.6 billion people live there. Amazingly, except for Bhutan and the Maldives, every other country has some sort of internal strife, accompanied by enormous violence.
In some places this strife is because of identity issues (Sinhala vs Tamil, Hindu vs Muslim). In others it is because of bad governance, the best example being Nepal but also perhaps Bangladesh and Pakistan. In yet others, it is because of deep-running political divisions (jihadists vs moderates in Pakistan).
These specific reasons aside, the main feature that stands out is the sheer scale of violence and mayhem that goes on, without let. The scale of killings in Jammu and Kashmir, for instance, or on the Pakistan-Afghan border, and of course in the civil war in Sri Lanka, perhaps dwarfs every other country except for Iraq and Sudan.
The assassination of Benazir Bhutto last Thursday is only the latest episode in this bloody opera. The only reason it is different is that it was not some poor citizen who was killed "" 20 of them did die along with her but no one has bothered to name them "" but a sort of modern-day princess.
The same thing happens elsewhere in the region. It is only when a VIP gets killed that there is a heads-up. Otherwise, violence has become such an everyday part of life the people just shrug and get on with their lives.
Should governments of the region also carry on as though all this is normal? Shouldn't they be doing a great deal more to improve matters in what is arguably the world's most dangerous region? When the question is posed, the answers come from the law and order and/or security side. That is, every government in the region sees the problem mainly as a policing problem.
While that is no doubt true in an obvious sort of way, such a limited approach does not help to get to the root of the problem, namely, the role played by low economic growth "" an average of 6 per cent "" and limited employment and business opportunities for ordinary people.
There are simply too many people wandering around with a sense of real or imagined grievance. The ground is so fertile that it has become possible for any half-credible ideological explanation and oriented towards a violent solution to have sufficient appeal. Ask the Naxalites in 160 of India's poorer districts, and you will get the echo.
The economic problems are well known but worth repeating. The manufacturing sector contributes only barely 15 per cent of GDP, whereas it could well be at least twice that. Indeed, in India employment in industry actually declined between 1996 and 2002, which was a period of low growth. In Sri Lanka, far too many firms hire fewer than 15 workers so that they can avoid paying an average of 175 weeks of severance pay.
Even outside of manufacturing, far too many South Asians live in rural areas in abject poverty with no hope of a better life. China has shown how people will accept even the absence of civil liberties if the rulers ensure for them a better physical quality of life, and upward economic mobility.
In South Asia, which has mostly democratic regimes (however imperfect), the opposite is the case "" and for the poor is at least as unsatisfactory as the Chinese option.

First Published: Sun, December 30 2007. 00:00 IST
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