By Shavini De Silva,
Programme Officer, Regional Centre for Strategic Studies
South Asia is home to 40% of the world poor, even though it is considered one of the fastest growing regions in the world. In the last 15 years, South Asia has also experienced the highest number of terrorist activity in the world. The impact of COVID-19 pandemic on multifaceted inequalities in South Asia is profound and it affects vulnerable and marginalized groups disproportionately. It tends to widen inequalities and deepen insecurities in society, particularly among marginalized sections. The paradox of the COVID 19 pandemic, on the one hand, has increased the amount of existing social inequalities and on the other hand it has subdued the vibrant social movements in the region. One of the defining features in social and political landscape in South Asia is the existence of a variety of social movements through history. During the pandemic period, the world also witnessed the resurgence of the Black Lives Matter Movement in the United States and the West. It was in this context Regional Centre for Strategic Studies held a webinar on the theme “Social Inequalities and Emerging Trends in People’s Movements in Post- COVID South Asia. The purpose of the webinar was to generate a discourse to identify trends in people and movements in post-COVID South Asia.
Four world-renowned scholars/social activists in South Asia spoke at the webinar. The distinguished panelists consisted of Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva, former Professor of Sociology and Dean of the Faculty of Arts, University of Peradeniya, Dr. Umakant, a well-known social activists in New Delhi, Prof. Rasul Bakhsh Rais a Professor of Political Science in the Department of Humanities and Social Sciences, Lahore University of Management Sciences (LUMS), and Mr. Hari Sharma, the Executive Director of Alliance for Social Dialogue/Social Science Baha, Kathmandu. Professor Karori Singh the Emeritus Fellow/Professor of South Asian Studies and Former Director, South Asia Studies Centre, University of Rajasthan, Jaipur, INDIA, and Professor Keerawela, Executive Director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies. moderated the panel discussion.
In bringing Sri Lankan experience to the discussion, Prof. Kalinga Tudor Silva stated that Sri Lanka could be seen as an outstanding success in terms of control of COVID-19 during the past six months. The well-developed health infrastructure in the country also reflected in earlier success in malaria eradication and various other public health achievements including reduction in infant mortality and progressive increase in life expectancy and coordinated effort at COVID-19 control by a new political regime committed to the task of containing the disease at points of origin are among the factors contributing to the crisis management.
There are, however, some important concerns about the social inequality connected with the pattern of infection. During the early phase, the community infections were reported disproportionately in urban low income neighborhoods, typically with a notable minority presence. The worker returnees from other countries and the substance users and their contacts have been two groups of civilians most affected by the COVID-19 infections. The decision by the state to impose mandatory cremation on all deaths attributed to COVID-19 has been heavily criticized by the Muslim community, who believe in maintaining religious rituals of burying the dead. The National Operation Centre for Prevention of COVID-19 established by the president in response to the pandemic chaired by the military commander is conspicuous by the absence of any civil society representation or any persons with professional skills in understanding and responding to social and cultural issues related to handling the multifaceted social crisis inevitably resulting from the pandemic.
Discrimination and exclusion during COVID-19 Pandemic Lockdown in India was the focus of Dr. Umakant’s presentation. He stated that as the number of reported COVID-19 cases has surpassed 3 million in India. It is now high time to not only address the ways and means for ending the pandemic but also to highlight the caste based discrimination and exclusion faced by Dalits, Adivasis and Other Backward Caste (OBC) people in different parts of India during pandemic. Any disaster is not caste/race neutral, it affects the disadvantaged people quite adversely leading government officials along with society at large to maintaining colossal amounts of socio-economic inequality. The case of sanitation workers stands as a dehumanizing experience can be cited as a case in point. Having to eradicate dirt and filth along with the inhumane fact that society at large practices have remained an issue of great concern. Despite being the frontline warrior against Covid-19, they have not been provided with enough safety equipment and even parity with health personnel’s. The fact that migrant workers are been labeled as nowhere people stands at a critical issue. Within a four-hour notice, the national lockdown was announced by the government which led millions of migrant workers to a state of vulnerability. This in turn resulted them to walk thousands of kilometers back to their villages facing great hardships and misery. In recent research findings, it was also noted that the most marginalized sections of society namely, Dalits, Adivasis and LGBT had to endeavor extreme levels of suffering during the nationwide lockdown Furthermore the response of State has been completely dissatisfying as levels of inequality have risen which may take a long time to overcome. The question still lies at the necessary precautions that need to be exercised during the discourse of a pandemic. Social distancing within the South Asian context has its own connotations of discrimination and exclusion relating to cast which makes it more challenging to combat. More than anything else a sense of solidarity, empathy, generosity, warmth, compassion, share and care is needed, not only in helping the humanity but also to inculcate values in the younger generation. This could be distinguished as Ubuntu, a term popularized by Bishop Desmond Tutu during Anti-Apartheid struggle days. A society without Ubuntu is a dead society.
Traditional caste system, tribal identities and ethnic biases along with minority religion and economic class are the contributing factors that play a role in marginalization and discrimination against certain groups, Prof. Rasul Rais said. The issue of economic and social inequality spans to the vast portion of the countrysides as minority of big landlords own much of the agricultural lands, the rest of the remaining majorities work as peasants. The landowning class dominating the political parties and the electoral system have not allowed land reforms to take place. The urban areas that are growing rapidly, with the migration of landless and the rising middle classes show the same trend in housing, allocation of geographical spaces, access to educational facilities and categories of jobs, or joblessness. As an elite-dominated society, Pakistan runs an “elitist economy” and a hierarchical social order. The decades of economic growth and modernisation have not altered much the social structural reasons that continue to reproduce inequality in different forms. The poor have larger families, mostly illiterate and live in congested places and live on daily wages. By their economic circumstances, they have been exposed to the pandemic disproportionally more than the affluent sections of the society that have better education, living conditions and economic means.
The social movements in Pakistan against class discrimination, land reforms, social equality and equal right are weak or non-existent whereas the liberal sections of the civil society are more focused on political, gender and ideological issues replicating the agenda of political parties. The religious groups that have proliferated and have more means and street powers have greater interest in identity construction, Islamization and conservative social ethos while weak, fragmented and divided social movements, equality, rights, health and justice remain marginalized issues.
Dr. Hari Sharma of Nepali Social Science Baha paid attention to impact of political structures on social and political processes. It is of key importance to take political interests into consideration as it is a main factor in deciding how preventive and remedial measures should be exercised accordingly, especially in the face of social, economic and natural disasters. This could be viewed against the backdrop that populist politics has integrated with nationalism over the most recent years posing a grave threat to the democratic political practices and minority interests. The rational politics in Nepal stands at a critical juncture and the Nepalese people live in difficult times, despite unprecedented challenges created by COVID-19 pandemic. Dr. Hari Sharma emphasized that it is a vital fact that democratic elements reclaim political space which has been lost.
Professor Singh moderated the session by questioning what went wrong and how new form of inequalities came into existence. Those who want to stick to the status quo turn a blind eye to growing social inequalities emphasizing the importance of growth and development. One of the outcomes of this approach would be that society at large becomes less sensitive to social inequality and academics also play a very poor role in bringing real social issues to the discussion forums. Hence, it is necessary for new social movements to recognize emerging trends of inequality in post COVID South Asia. The discussion underscored the need to give priority to emerging inequalities in post CIDID South Asia in national and regional discourses.