South Asia, a region that stretches from the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan to the fertile plains of the Ganges and across the Bay of Bengal, harbours some of the most poverty-stricken territories in the world. Second only to Sub-Saharan Africa, South Asia is home to approximately half a billion people living below the poverty line, facing conflicts, widespread ill health, and poor literacy.
Poverty and inequality are inextricably linked, casting a dark shadow over almost every country in the region. Economic inequality, characterised by the uneven distribution of income and wealth, fuels social conflict, destabilises political structures, and erodes social cohesion. As poverty levels surge, unemployment, hunger, and crime rates follow suit.
Visible factors contributing to poverty include detrimental economic systems, conflicts, and environmental challenges like droughts and climate change. However, the invisible causes often perpetuate the cycle of poverty, such as the exploitation of marginalised individuals, inadequate infrastructure, underdeveloped social sectors, and a lack of social security support.
Inequality, on the other hand, stems from non-democratic governance, poor fiscal and financial policies, subpar education systems, and violence. Poverty itself is a breeding ground for hunger, leading to the tragic loss of thousands of lives each year as individuals cannot afford to feed themselves.
Even in the 21st century, approximately 700 million people, nearly 10 per cent of the global population, live in extreme poverty. The COVID-19 pandemic and climate change further threaten to push an additional 150 million people into extreme poverty, as predicted by the World Bank in 2021.
Worldwide poverty has been an overly concerning issue for many many years. However, following the COVID-19 pandemic, many years of progress were destroyed. The first of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals, end poverty in all forms everywhere, has a framework that sets out the plans to assist millions of people out of poverty. One of the ways that I am supporting this goal is through the Tej Kohli & Ruit Foundation.
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When measuring poverty, two main criteria are employed. Absolute poverty compares income against the amount necessary to meet basic needs like food, clothing, and shelter. Relative poverty, on the other hand, gauges an individual’s inability to meet a minimum standard of living compared to others at the same time and place.
India, despite being the world’s fifth-largest economy, still grapples with the highest concentration of poverty. The wealthier southern states are growing at a faster rate than their poorer, more populous northern counterparts.
Nepal has made significant strides in poverty reduction, reducing the poverty rate from 49 per cent in 1991 to 21 per cent in 2016. However, it remains the poorest country in the region, surrounded by the worst Multidimensional Poverty Index (MPI) and densely populated border districts of India and underpopulated, impoverished border counties of China’s Tibet in the north.
Bangladesh faces the challenge of a declining rate of poverty reduction, despite boasting high GDP growth. Inequality is rapidly escalating, with resources being concentrated in the hands of a privileged few at the expense of the masses.
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In Afghanistan, an estimated 42 per cent of the population lives below the poverty line, with the eastern, northeastern, and west-central regions bearing the brunt of poverty.
Bhutan has made commendable progress in reducing poverty, although it comes at the cost of mounting external debt. From 2007 to 2017, the poverty rate dropped from 23.2 per cent to 8.2 per cent.
Pakistan faces a stark wealth disparity, with the wealthiest 10 per cent of households owning 60 per cent of household wealth, while the least wealthy 60 per cent possess a mere tenth of it. The poverty rate in Pakistan has risen to 35.7 per cent.
In South Asia, income inequality permeates both urban and rural contexts, exacerbating other forms of inequality such as wealth disparity, political power imbalances, and social stratification. The economic divide between developed metropolitan areas and small towns and villages mirrors the vast inequality between Europe and remote Sub-Saharan Africa.
Millions of homeless individuals seek refuge on railway platforms, in city slums, riverbeds, forests, and unused lands. Globalisation, fiscal mismanagement, and systemic shortcomings have widened the wealth gap, condemning vulnerable populations to substandard living conditions.
While extreme poverty can potentially be eradicated within a few decades, inequality remains a persistent challenge. Developed countries have made significant progress in reducing poverty, and middle-income countries have also seen improvements. However, developing and least-developed nations still face arduous journeys in their quest to alleviate poverty and bridge the inequality gap.
Despite South Asia’s remarkable economic growth, which has exceeded 5 per cent annually for over a decade, there is still a long way to go in reducing poverty and narrowing inequalities. The policies and programs designed to support marginalised populations are yet to function efficiently and effectively.
To combat poverty and inequality in South Asia, several steps can be taken:
1. Foster inclusive economic growth: Promote sustainable and inclusive economic development to generate employment opportunities, particularly in agriculture and small-scale industries.
2. Strengthen social services: Improve access to basic social services, such as healthcare and education, to ensure that the most vulnerable populations receive the support they need.
3. Enhance social protection systems: Develop robust social protection systems to provide a safety net for those living in poverty and reduce their vulnerability to shocks and crises.
4. Empower marginalised populations: Implement programs that empower marginalised groups, such as persons with disabilities, Dalit communities, abandoned children, and displaced persons, by providing them with education, skills training, and employment opportunities.
5. Address systemic issues: Tackle non-democratic governance, fiscal and financial mismanagement, and educational deficiencies to create a more equitable society.
6. Foster regional cooperation: Encourage collaboration between South Asian countries to address poverty and inequality collectively, sharing best practices and resources.
7. Promote awareness and advocacy: Raise public awareness about the magnitude of poverty and inequality in the region and advocate for policies and initiatives that prioritize poverty reduction and social equality.
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While South Asia experiences significant economic growth, the battle against poverty and inequality continues to be fought on multiple fronts. With concerted efforts and comprehensive strategies, it is possible to create a future where all individuals in the region have access to a dignified life, free from the clutches of poverty and inequality.