South Asia – 2: Three Deprivations

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.


  • Arpita Chatterjee
    Posted at 04:47h, 26 October Reply

    [I just had to admire the insight and what makes it even more admirable is that I suspect it’s coming from a man!]
    Let me add that if the woman has been brought up in what is termed a ‘western outlook’, she is likely to protest from rather a young age. This will lead to her being labled as a ‘feminist’ or a ‘nonconformist’, often also with a questionable character!
    I think the feminist movement has today turned full circle and it’s more focussed on a woman having the choice to do what she wants to, which is more in line with the whole issue of individual freedom.
    Strangely enough, if one looks at history, one finds feminine icons like Gargi (female sage in Brihadaranyaka Upanisad) , Sulabha (philosopher and sage in the Mahabharata), Rani Rashmoni (built the Dakshineshwar temple), Sarada Devi (wife of Ramakrishna Paramhansa), Rani Lakshmi Bai (of Jhansi – freedom fighter) – the list can go on. this implies that the woman’s place in society has been fluctuating – perhaps its the internalised negative beliefs that prevent women from asserting themselves.
    I’m glad to see that for today’s young woman it’s definitely changing – perhaps not to the extent we women would want it to, but there is hope!

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:50h, 26 October Reply

    I came across a story that I had never heard before. I wonder how readers would respond to it. The source is here:

    The concept of women empowerment is not new and can be traced back from a story about King Arthur who was ambushed and imprisoned by the Monarch of a neighboring kingdom. The monarch could have killed him but was moved by Arthur’s youthful happiness and offered him freedom if he could answer a difficult question within a specified period of one year. The question was “what do women really want?” Such a question would perplex even the most knowledgeable man, and, to young Arthur, it seemed an impossible query.

    Since it was better than death, Arthur accepted the monarch’s proposition to have an answer by year’s end. He returned to his kingdom and sought the help of princesses, priests, the wise men, the court jesters and the prostitutes. No one could give him a satisfactory answer, but what most people did tell him was to consult the ‘old witch’. The last month of the year arrived and Arthur had no alternative but to talk to the witch. She agreed to answer his question but he would have to accept her price first. The old witch wanted to marry Gawain, the most noble of the Knights of the Round Table and Arthur’s closest friend. Young Arthur was horrified. She was hunchbacked and awfully hideous, had only one tooth, smelled like sewage water and often made obscene noises. He had never run across such a repugnant creature. Arthur refused to ask/force his friend to marry her and have to endure such a burden.

    Gawain, upon learning of the proposal, spoke to Arthur. He told him that nothing was too big of a sacrifice compared to king’s life that he had pledged to the monarch in the event of failing to give the right answer. Hence the wedding was announced and the witch answered Arthur’s question: “What a woman really wants is to be able to be in charge of her own life.” Everyone instantly knew that the witch had uttered a great truth and that Arthur’s life would be spared. And so it went. The neighboring monarch spared Arthur’s life and granted him total freedom. The answer was not the end, but the beginning of a lovely and lucid story on women empowerment.

    What a wedding Gawain and the witch had! Arthur was torn between relief and anguish. The old witch put her worst manners on display, ate with her hands, belched and made everyone uncomfortable. The wedding night approached. Gawain, steeling himself for a horrible night entered the bedroom. What a sight awaited! The most beautiful woman he had ever seen lay before him. The knight was astounded and asked what had happened. The beauty replied that since he had been so kind to her (when she’d been a witch) half the time she would be her horrible deformed self, and the other half, she would be her beautiful maiden self. Which would he want her to be during the day and which during the night? During the day a beautiful woman to show off to his friends, but at night, in the privacy of his home, an old spooky witch. Or would he prefer having by day a hideous witch, but by night a beautiful woman to enjoy many intimate moments.

    What a cruel question! Gawain began to think of his predicament and then said that he would let her choose for herself. Upon hearing this, she announced that she would be beautiful all the time, because he had respected her and had let her be in charge of her own life.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 10:30h, 26 October Reply

    Whoa, that is some story. I like it and I learnt something (quite timely, I might add) from it.

  • Rajnish
    Posted at 14:51h, 30 October Reply

    In his book the world is flat Thomas Freidman talks about the 3 revolutions which made the world flat.
    1.Nations became free to exercise their will through economic revolution
    2.Society became free to do what was best for itself through social revolution
    3.Individuals became free and empowered to do what they wanted through the internet revolution

    As an idea South Asia and especially India became important on the world map only because of the internet. Here was a medium that took individual enterprise beyond the clutches of babudom, government inefficiency and regulation. If you had talent and could create value, a company based out of California will pay you money for services delivered in Bangalore when it all started and now even if you are in a tiny hamlet no one ever heard of.

    The information technology also brought with it transparency, Right to information act and e-governance.The politicians and officials have now lesser chances of corruption and are afraid of public scrutiny any time. I am not saying it is Ram Rajya but yes things have certainly moved in the right direction.

    The recent Indian elections gave clear verdict to the political parties – perform or perish. In Maharashtra again the diktat is clear – I don’t care if you are a hindu or a marathi manus, if you work for my being you are in, if you don’t go and jump into the Arabian sea with your silly ideals.

    Any part of the society whether its women or the poor have to unleash the power of information and gather support for their cause. If they don’t do it now perhaps they never will.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 22:11h, 24 September

      Rajnish: The recent fiasco about the Commonwealth Games, including the corruption, inefficiency, exclusion of the poor, and the comments about different standards of cleanliness will push us to re-examine your thesis. See the following in the New York Times:

      Perhaps this can best be explained by the ‘Flailing State’ characterization that Lant Pritchett has applied to India (the paper is #30 in The Best From Elsewhere section of the blog).

      We also need to go back to our discussion of what we consider unacceptable in society and why so little can be done about things that everyone agrees are unacceptable.

      It was in May that I came across an article titled ‘Excremental India’ in the New York Review of Books. The NYRB is a very prestigious publication and I must say that I was so stung at seeing such a characterization that I couldn’t bring myself to post it on the blog. But given what has now exploded onto the global Internet, we cannot avoid dealing with the issues. The link to the NYRB article is here but the full article is only accessible to subscribers:

      Fortunately, it is reproduced in full on this site:

  • aahang
    Posted at 05:54h, 26 September Reply

    South Asian,

    I was on a flight from Philedelphia to Atlanta when the story of widespread corruption at CWG first broke out.I was reading the in flight copy of Wall street journal which carried the story of horrendous misadventure of Kalmadi and sons.
    Needless to say I was aghast at the contents of the story but what was more disturbing was the fact that I felt as If all passengers in the flight were sneering at me and saying ” India is a super power and a developing country.Ha! Ha ! Ha! I really felt ashamed for being an Indian for an act of sheer betrayal committed by my fellow beings.
    India has failed as a state long time before the CWG happened.This is just a symptom , the cancer has already eaten half the country.Today India in divided very clearly into the have’s and have not’s.The Have’s are the ones who have showed to the government that it is not required and they will continue to flourish with or without it.They have private electricity, private water, private security, private Schools, Foreign holidays, Private places of worship and basically live like aliens in India.Just like you pay ‘hafta’ to the local mafia they shell out the 30 % Tax once in a year so the government and its dogs stay away.They are so agnostic and indifferent that 90 % of them do not even bother to vote.
    The trouble is with the ‘other’ India which is supposed to be taken care of by the largess from their rich half brothers.The loot begins as soon as the moolah is in staring at the top of the pyramid.By the time it reaches the bottom just 10 % is left out as per statistics conjured up by none other than Prince Rahul Gandhi.
    The Naxalite movement which has spread in half of the country is nothing but a struggle to reclaim natural resources from the Government which has snatched away the right to live ‘naturally’ and has given nothing back. The Naxals with their own organizational issues are widely supported by the people as they represent a cause – why should we bother about the government, its rules and policies when the Government has not bothered about about since freedom.The officials only come back when they are given order to plunder and almost never to keep the promises of their masters.
    One half of the country on the North east to the south is on the verge of anarchy.It will be disastrous if the other half from north west to south realizes that we fund our own existence anyways after paying a third to a government that is non existent. Why should we do that ?? Why not upgrade from private security to a private army and break loose from the Indian State.
    It is not going to happen so easily only because the ‘richer’ half has larger personal stakes but it’s only a matter of time when a ‘messiah’ like me shows them the way.Like so many other identities being exploited in India of 21st century – Marathi, Kashmiri, Bihari, Bodo, Telugu being ‘affluent’ too is an identity which can bring people together and fight the oppressor. What will give this group an edge will be its superior thought, better networks and access to resources to gather strength in the form of men and machines which will come easily with money.

    The Altlas will shrug and there will be trouble.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 04:50h, 27 September

      Aahang: I would not worry too much about the sneering – it is more our own embarrassment that makes us see it everywhere. But we do have to worry about why things like this happen – why can’t a task be implemented well given so much time and money and the knowledge that the outcome would be open to global inspection? That is something of a puzzle. Why couldn’t Manmohan Singh have been involved at the very outset instead of taking charge at the last minute?

      Regarding your characterization of India, there is indeed a divide between the haves and the have-nots but is the conflict seen in that perspective? Do the haves see the have-nots as their principle enemy and the cause of India’s problems? I think not. Rather, the haves are unhappy with poor governance and with the democratic process itself preferring some sort of soft authoritarianism to get India moving faster. On the other side, the have-nots also do not see the haves as the principle enemy. The Naxalites seem focused on the global system of capitalism as their nemesis while the rest have faith that the democratic process would ultimately enable them to join the ranks of the haves. The conflicts seem more diffuse and complex to me and it is not very clear how they will play out because all the players will adapt and adjust as the situation unfolds.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 06:03h, 18 July Reply

    This to me is an important question: Is the treatment of women (the most numerous ‘Other’) getting better or worse in South Asia?

    Consider this op-ed as a take-off point for discussion:

  • sree
    Posted at 06:50h, 18 July Reply

    Is the treatment of women (the most numerous β€˜Other’) getting better or worse in South Asia?

    It is definitely getting better. Now, many women have a say in getting education, getting a job, finding a partner, providing education to their children and many other things. These have happened in spite of our culture and values.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 07:37h, 18 July

      Sree: There are two aspects to consider:

      First, the increase in education and individual choice is a secular phenomenon – it applies to men as well as women. The question being asked is whether the attitude of men towards women has changed for the better or the worse.

      Second, any improvement is with reference to a starting point. Things may have improved since 1947 but deteriorated with respect to some other point in time. The question being asked has a longer time horizon than 1947. The question is what has been happening to gender relations over a long period of time? For example, what were they like when the majority of both men and women were uneducated, say in the year 1800?

      Some of these questions have been raised in another post on the blog:

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