Ten Unacceptable Things

I wish to begin today a conversation about the possibility of a social movement in South Asia – not, for the moment, a social movement, just a conversation about a possible social movement.

This social movement, if we agree to it and it gets off the ground, would go by a simple name – UNACCEPTABLE.  It would identify the ten things that we agree are unambiguously morally unacceptable in South Asia today and it would start a public conversation about them. It would signal our commitment to strive and eliminate them from our societies.

Let me start with an example that illustrates the kinds of things I have in mind and what I mean by unambiguous. Take the practice of slavery in the West. There came a point in time when the first few voices began to declare it morally unacceptable, an affront to human dignity. From these few voices arose the discourse that transformed the issue first into a public debate and then into a political struggle that finally put an end to the practice.

Unfortunately, there are still many such issues in South Asia that are an affront to human dignity, that no one with a social conscience can or should accept. Let me mention just one here to start the process leaving the others to be identified by consensus during the ensuing discussion.

It is morally unacceptable that in India, emerging as a major power in the twenty-first century, 43 percent of children under age 5 are malnourished. This compares with only 7 percent in China. Even Sub-Saharan Africa, home to the poorest countries in the world, has a lower rate of 28 percent. This high prevalence has to be viewed in the context of scientific evidence that if a child is malnourished until age 3, the neural formation suffers, and most of that underdevelopment is fixed for life (see here).

One can view this from the perspective of the future burden on the Indian economy but that would be an instrumental perspective. From a human rights point of view, this kind of endemic hunger has no place in the modern world and cannot be justified or defended on any conceivable grounds. It is a total failure of justice that has to be honestly acknowledged.

Our task is to identify ten of the most egregious examples of injustice in South Asia today that as citizens we are not prepared to accept. Once we have agreed on our list, we would move to discussing why these practices continue to persist, why they are tolerated, and why there are no political parties that are willing to include their elimination as part of their agendas. Through this process we would hope to raise the profile of these issues and make them a part of the public discourse.

There is no delusion here about the effectiveness of our effort, only a conviction that every journey begins with a step and gathers momentum as people who believe in the cause join and begin to walk alongside the others. All we are doing at this stage is starting the process of agreeing on the ten things in South Asia today that as human beings we consider absolutely and totally UNACCEPTABLE.

Let us begin this journey.

Process: Please use the Comments space below to list the things you find unacceptable. You don’t need to list exactly ten, only as many as you feel passionate about. At the end of a certain period we will pick the ten that have been mentioned most. At that time we will discuss how we intend to proceed to the next stage.


  • Apita Chatterjee
    Posted at 07:02h, 15 October Reply

    Perhaps the most difficult problem will be zeroing in on ten causes that we can all agree on! I’m with you on this – how will one go about it?

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:02h, 15 October

      Arpita: This can be like a poll. You list the ones you find most unacceptable – as many as you want to. After a certain period we will take the ten that have the most votes. At that time we will go over the list and talk about it just to make sure we have not missed something that should be on it.

  • ercelan
    Posted at 09:13h, 15 October Reply

    covers all — Inequity (beyond inequality): social, political, economic, cultural

    as consequences: not necessarily in this order, and much overlap

    2Debt bondage
    3Child Labour
    5Gender discrimination
    6Mass undernourishment
    7Absence of decent work
    8Honour killing
    10Economic inequality

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 10:07h, 15 October

      Ercelan: Thanks. There is no conceivable justification for 1-9. You will have to make an argument for 10 and spell out what you have in mind – especially because you start with the qualifier ‘beyond inequality.’

  • kamalakar
    Posted at 12:28h, 15 October Reply

    1. Caste: A large part of the societies banes have their origins in a mind set that thinks in line with the caste privileges.
    2. Capital: A monster that has corroded the frail moral fabric of our society by making every one fend for themselves.
    4. Compromise: Our ‘anything goes’ (chalta hai) mindset that is ready to adjust to any amount of liberties taken with the ‘right’.
    5. Patriarchy: Our totally shameless male chauvinism that is putting more and more lives in danger. Being so completely thickskinned about the innumerable rape taking place daily in our cities for example.

    Will keep thinking for five more among so many.

  • Naila
    Posted at 12:43h, 15 October Reply

    As a woman working with survivors of domestic abuse and sexual assault and exploitation, I feel very strongly about this cause. There are are social practices, inherent prejudices and governmental policies that perpetuates women abuse in Pakistan.
    Child abuse and child labor is also in our face every day, and so is minority abuse and discrimination. These are causes in which our intervention can certainly make a difference.
    Even though I am part of a cycle that perpetuates economic inequality, the scale of this calamity is so huge in South Asia that I, as an individual feel helpless. Perhaps its defeatist. Perhaps not.

  • samia altaf
    Posted at 16:53h, 15 October Reply

    It is morally unacceptable:
    1: that being born in a particular class/caste places certain human beings higher or lower than other human beings.
    2: that half of the population cannot read and write.

  • Vikram
    Posted at 22:59h, 15 October Reply

    I find the following things unacceptable and hard to fathom,

    1) That the values and principles of the people who created modern India, in particular those of Gandhi and Ambedkar are being more or less forgotten to a combination of cynicism and consumerism.

    2) That a substantial chunk of urban India thinks violence is okay to ‘cleanse’ the cities of the poor and the ‘other’ to become ‘world class’.

    3) That most English speaking Indians do not follow a media-outlet in an Indian language in addition to the English media.

    4) That the education system in India provides a sub-standard and mostly useless education to most children.

    5) That the Indian state and the elite that run it seek to relentlessly copy and paste ‘solutions’ to the country’s problems instead of listening to the people. (Think of the RTI and the NREGA, they both came from grass-roots movements)

    • Vinod
      Posted at 07:48h, 19 October

      Vikram, I really wish I could discuss these points with you over coffee in detail sometime. I think I have a lot to learn from you about these.

  • Hasan Abdullah
    Posted at 04:23h, 16 October Reply

    May be the maladies afflicting our societies can be traced to the inherently flawed organisation of the society and political economy – rooted in ‘family and private property’ – that is highly biased in favour of the capital and the privileged. And, in the international context, South Asia is on the periphery of the capitalist development.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 14:35h, 16 October

      Hasan: You are pointing to the next stage of the discussion. Once the most egregiously unacceptable things have been identified the next question would be to ask what are the social and political arrangements that give rise to such situations? To anticipate that discussion I can mention briefly that there are two quite different perspectives on this question. In the very influential A Theory of Justice (1971), John Rawls can be interpreted to argue that our effort should be to seek a just society in which the possibility of unjust acts is minimized. In The Idea of Justice (2009), Amartya Sen can be interpreted to argue that we would have more success if we concentrated on eliminating the most unacceptable injustices so that the society we live in becomes as just as we can possibly make it.

  • Zofeen Khan
    Posted at 19:50h, 16 October Reply

    1- Illiteracy
    2- Class discrimination
    3- Gender Discrimination
    4- Corruption
    5- Starvation

  • Semu Bhatt
    Posted at 07:06h, 17 October Reply

    1. Intolerance – be it in the name of religion, nation, ethnicity, language, or any other basis.

    2. Lack of gainful employment for the youth which stems mainly from lack of vocational education

    3. Divisive policies of the politicians

    4. Moral policing 🙂

    5. Corruption

  • J. Radhika
    Posted at 04:32h, 18 October Reply

    An utter disregard for nature in the interest of industrialization is at the root of growing neglect of people in the countryside, who depend on common property resources for survival (according to Narpat Jodha in Life on the Edge). Only 4% of virgin Western Ghat forest is intact; whereas the number of (Special Economic Zones) planned for the countryside grow by leaps and bounds.

    Education in the countryside is totally irrelevant to the needs of farming and shepherding communities and to tribal people. Educators don’t notice that regeneration of the soil and conservation of bio-diversity is vital to their lives as well as to future generations.

    Culture with its star glitter is utterly degraded.

    Our decision makers think they are masters of the universe and there is no tomorrow.

  • maria
    Posted at 05:20h, 18 October Reply

    Child sexual abuse woulld rank high on my list, Still sadly an issue that affects so many lives across class and gender divides, but unacknowledged. Also I think convenient though it is to lump together the violence, discrimination and exploitation that women and girls face as’ gender discrimination’ it needs to be unpacked.

  • almostinfamous
    Posted at 15:39h, 18 October Reply

    Power, as it stands exercised today must be at the top of any list, since all of the issues emanate from the power of one group, however classified, over another. I would put it as centralization of power, if that makes it clearer.

  • Rita
    Posted at 20:02h, 18 October Reply

    Unacceptable: my list is designed to draw attention to practical needs of the poor that often get overlooked.
    1. Manual scavenging – Manual scavenging (including the cleaning of toilets by hand – without gloves or other equipment) is considered one of the lowest, polluted and most degrading occupations. The caste system dictates that those born into particular Dalit subcaste should engage in manual scavenging. This is an affront to human dignity and should be banned in India and and at a minimum all those working as scavengers should be given proper tools to protect themselves, and employers of scavengers penalized for not provide adequate protection.
    2. Drinking water
    3. Cheap, cost-effective Sanitary napkins available to all poor girls and women – without which every other right gets affected – right to education, basic health, and work. Its importance is only understood by middle class and rich girls and women who cannot imagine doing without it for even one month.
    4. Toilets for men and women so no single person in India or elsewhere has to go to the field.
    – Others to be added later

  • Vinod
    Posted at 07:57h, 19 October Reply

    My submission:

    Rita 1
    Rita 2
    Radhika 1
    Vikram 2
    Radhka 2/Vikram 4
    samia 1
    Semu 5
    Vikram 5
    Semu 3
    Rita 4

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 21:35h, 21 October Reply

    Thanks to all who participated in this exercise. There was a wide range of suggestions and for the moment I have grouped them into major categories just so we get a feel for the kinds of practices we find most unacceptable. We can disaggregate at a later stage.

    The following are the categories mentioned most often with the number of mentions in parentheses:

    Discrimination (14)
    Abuse (7)

    These civil rights categories reflect the feeling that all human beings are equal and entitled to similar and respectful treatment. Any deviation from the principle of equal and respectful treatment is unacceptable.

    Employment (7)
    Education (5)
    Food (3)
    Water (2)
    Sanitation (2)

    These human rights categories reflect the feeling that all human beings are entitled to the fulfillment with dignity of suitably defined basic needs. Denial of basic needs is unacceptable.

    Destructive Development (4)

    This category reflects the belief that development at the expense of nature or of people is not acceptable.

    Corruption (3)

    This category reflects the opinion that misuse of public trust is unacceptable.

    Let us consider these categories before we move on to a discussion of what we can be done to reduce the injustices inherent in the practices that fall within each category.

  • Vinod
    Posted at 05:49h, 22 October Reply

    SouthAsian, that is beautifully categorized. Thanks.

  • Aakar Patel
    Posted at 08:27h, 28 October Reply

    I wonder if a discussion like this 100 years later will still throw up the same things.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 21:50h, 29 October

      Aakar: You would be intrigued to read this account of the Cagots – a caste of untouchables in Europe that existed for hundreds of years. It took the French Revolution to end the discrimination against them. It might need a social revolution in India to end the practices you have highlighted.

    • SouthAsian
      Posted at 15:48h, 06 November

      Aakar: The Cagots were the European untouchables of the past. The Roma are the pariahas of the present. How can we explain that the super-rich countries of Europe can deny education to Roma children today and that Americans have to campaign on their behalf? Read this story and reflect on what kind of world we live in. Why is it so?

      It is ironic that the Roma might have emigrated from India to improve their social status and at the end of many centuries are still the outcasts of society.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 13:02h, 31 October Reply

    It is useful to note here the beginning of a global movement against caste discrimination championed by Navi Pillay, the UN high commissioner for human rights. I was intrigued to read in this report that the Indian government is averse to the internationalization of the issue. What does that say about this world? That human suffering takes a back seat to political considerations? But why do Indians condone this strategy of avoidance? Do they agree with the stand of their governments? Do they feel it is not really an issue? Or do they just don’t have time to devote to issues of social justice?


    Might as well add here what Mikhail Gorbachev has to say twenty years after the fall of the Berlin Wall:

    Alas, over the last few decades, the world has not become a fairer place: disparities between the rich and the poor either remained or increased, not only between the north and the developing south but also within developed countries themselves. The social problems in Russia, as in other post-communist countries, are proof that simply abandoning the flawed model of a centralised economy and bureaucratic planning is not enough, and guarantees neither a country’s global competitiveness nor respect for the principles of social justice or a dignified standard of living for the population.


    • Vikram
      Posted at 15:20h, 31 October

      I was at a talk by Anand Teltumbde who is one of the leading Dalit activists in India today. He had some interesting things to say about the caste system in India today.

      He said that the caste system as it is existed between the three twice-born castes (Brahmin, Kshatriya and Vaishya) has almost disappeared. Caste conflict is centred on the competition between the Shudras and the Dalits for land and other resources. Land reform and political activism has empowered the Shudras, who are now trying to suppress the Dalits (of which the Khairlanji massacre is one instance).

      Looked from this angle, it is clear that the Dalit issue is not so much about discrimination but about economic suppression. Comparing it to racism is faulty, because what’s driving it today is mainly economic logic. I have no opposition personally to ‘internationalizing’ the issue but I am not sure if that will accomplish much.

      To attack the problem, Teltumbde suggested strengthening our justice system and land reform. How to do those things is the real challenge.

  • Aakar Patel
    Posted at 06:47h, 09 November Reply

    South Asian
    I think the Indian situation is different than France’s.
    Did the Cagots kick the people below them? My guess is that they did not (you could argue that perhaps it was because they had nobody below them).
    But here, our behaviour is telescoped up and down and sideways. There is evidence to show that within the Dalits, the Mahar will turn his nose up at the Chamar and the Vankar.
    It’s not the principle of hierarchy that we appear to have a problem with; merely where we stand as communities in that hierarchy.
    If that is the case, then the situation would place us differently than the French peasants and intellectuals. And so my question.

    Hi Vikram, This piece might interest you:

    • Vinod
      Posted at 13:29h, 09 November

      Aakar, great article. As they say…let the facts do the talking….your article does just that. Great one!

  • Semu Bhatt
    Posted at 16:40h, 09 November Reply

    Forget about the hierarchy amongst communities, those who climb the steps of success from the Dalit communities, want no business with their own community. They get their surnames changed, so that nobody would know of their roots, and mingle only with the so called “upper classes” whom they had despised all their lives.

    • Vinod
      Posted at 04:47h, 10 November

      ‘Sanskritization’ is the name of that phenomenon, I believe.

    • Vikram
      Posted at 00:35h, 11 November

      Semu, here is a comment on my blog that will help us understand the mindset of the ‘successful’ Dalits, it is definitely not Sanskritization,

      “The problem with the BSP is that it has a mainly lower middle class urban base in terms of membership and leadership while the voters are actually the rural poor. This means that there is an economic contradiction between their interests and so the BSP tends to follow policies which don’t necessarily benefit most of their supporters. There are large class divides within the Dalit community – which are ironically partially the result of reservation policy; leading to a class of middle class intellectuals and govt employees who are frequently alienated from both their own community and the so-called ‘mainstream’.

      The BSP for a number of reasons is also very hostile to any pure economic development programme – partly because they are aware that economic issues can potentially divide their Dalit base, partly because they are wary of losing ground to the Left parties and partly because they don’t have the means to carry out st(r)uctural transformations on the ground.

      There is also the issue of time horizons; economic development strategies take years if not decades to push through and in the countryside you will need the kind of cadre and organisation that the Commnist parties had to make sure reforms are effective. The BSP cadre ideologically and organisationally are unsuited to this task. In all my interviews with their members and leaders; it is clear that economic transformation is not a primary part of their programme – they aren’t opposed to it, they just aren’t going to devote much of their time and energ(y) to it.”

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 07:53h, 09 August Reply

    This story on hunger in India should help us re-open this discussion. There are a lot of forgotten people in South Asia that need to be given priority in all plans and strategies. How can this be an acceptable state of affairs?


  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 13:36h, 21 March Reply

    I came across the following and thought I would add it here. It is both a comment on what is unacceptable and on common assumptions about economic growth that are not supported by the evidence. I was struck particularly by the concluding observation that I have highlighted.

    It is true that countries with high average incomes score better on many measures of health; higher life expectancies and reduced infant mortality are generally hallmarks of a strong economy. However, a recent analysis of childhood nutrition in India casts doubt on the theory that a strong economy triggers meaningful changes in the lives of those living at low incomes.

    Two weeks ago, the scientific journal PLoS Medicine published a study that sought to define the relationship between economic growth and the pervasive problem of undernourished Indian children. In India, 25-50% of the deaths of children between 6 months and 5 years old are due to inadequate food intake. This slow, sustained starvation causes stunted growth and puts children at greater risk for infection and disease.

    The primary policy tool to combat chronic childhood undernutrition has been economic development, but despite two decades of booming growth, the average calorie intake in India has actually declined. Indeed, the authors found that there was no link between economic growth and childhood undernutrition; stagnant or thriving, the status of a state’s economy had no effect on its number of underweight children.

    So, what can the U.S. learn from India? The study’s authors conclude that improving childhood nutrition is dependent on ‘direct investment in health and health-related programs.’ The undernourished children of India were the unfortunate participants in a decades-long experiment that disputes the idea that market-driven solutions can answer poverty-based problems.

    1. Deaton A (2003) Health, inequality, and economic development. Journal of Economic Literature 41:113–158.
    2. Reddy KS (2011) Equity Must Accompany Economic Growth for Good Health. PLoS Med 8(3): e1000426. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000426
    3. Subramanyam MA, Kawachi I, Berkman LF, Subramanian SV (2011) Is Economic Growth Associated with Reduction in Child Undernutrition in India? PLoS Med 8(3): e1000424. doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.1000424

    Source: http://www.3quarksdaily.com/3quarksdaily/2011/03/lessons-from-low-income-india.html

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 14:19h, 07 April Reply

    These two articles provide a lot of material for reflection pertaining to society and development in South Asia:

    Manu Joseph: Fighting to Shut Out the Real India:

    It might have appeared on Saturday that there is much that connects the different rungs of the Indian society and that cricket is the proof. But the truth is that cricket is the only manmade phenomenon that connects the nation’s upper classes with its vast masses. There is absolutely nothing else. In fact, daily life in India is a fierce contest between the affluent and the educated on the one side, and the brooding impoverished on the other.


    Pankaj Mishra: Behind ‘Rising India’ lies the surrender of national dignity

    But there is nothing more un-Gandhian than this supra-national elite’s wild cravings for power and wealth, and its indifference to suffering – a pathology of economic globalisation that Egyptians and Tunisians will soon learn elected governments don’t cure, and even help conceal.


    Comments are invited.

  • SouthAsian
    Posted at 05:49h, 11 April Reply

    An article on a coal town in India:

    I spoke to local managers at Bharat Coking Coal Limited, a subsidiary of the government-run Coal India. They told me they were perfectly aware that the conditions in Jharia and especially Bokahapadi were unacceptable, and they seemed genuinely concerned about the local people’s health and safety.


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