From Arab Spring to Asian Autumn?

The Arab Spring has rocked the region with its bold if chaotic revolt. Peoples’ power has vanquished the political dynasties in Tunisia, Egypt and Yemen, forcing the political potentates to flee for their lives. Libyan ruler Col. Muammar Gaddafi is fighting a last ditch battle, facing an almost certain unfavourable outcome.

So is all this happening because people have had it with monarchial, monopoly regimes? Or is the aspiration for democracy driven by the survival instinct pushed to the brink, erupting in revolt? All countries that are in revolt, share many common features. Large hordes of unemployed (often uneducated) youth, concentrations in ghetto like conditions in urban enclaves because their families have left their village homes (with their assets there) and have migrated to the cities for work. Not that economic growth is not taking place but it is, as in India, largely jobless growth.
There are huge warning signals for India here. Not just because we have a similar demographic profile, often called the demographic advantage, of a large population of young people able to earn and drive the economy (and hopefully themselves) forward. But it’s not happening that way. India is posting for the last several years, the largest additions to the world’s list of High Networth Individuals. Today it ranks 12th in the world.
Think of it, the India which is home to the largest number of hungry people in the world, is also among the top 12 nations of the world where indecently rich people live. The other decisive aspect of the Arab Spring is the phenomenon of urbanisation that is going forward at breakneck speed in India and Asia. So bad is the situation, and so inadequate the response of national governments to it that a tinderbox-like situation has been created across the larger Asiatic region. With wall to wall media coverage of what is happening in the Arab world, it may be only a matter of time that aspirations of revolt are awakened in the utterly deprived youth in countries of our region because the conditions are so similar, the deprivations so alike. Hungry people are almost always, angry people.
With all negatives of near-zero rural development and an agricultural system so adverse that it cannot sustain them, people in many parts of Asia are being forced to abandon their homes and villages and seek work in cities. When they do this, many unfortunate things happen, starting with a loss of identity, self-respect and a shattering loss of self-reliance. These are the components of despair and given the right mix of enabling factors, the triggers for revolt. We are already seeing it in the heartland of India. When they are crowded in urban slums and ghettos instead of their village homes, they can more easily vent their anger. The scary thing though is that instead of trying to reverse the rush of urban migration and create jobs and decent living conditions that will allow people to live and earn with dignity in their village homes, national and international policymakers are making the most cock-eyed policies to exacerbate the situation.
The fist step in trying to diffuse a potential Asian Autumn, is to reverse the process of urbanisation and make villages self sufficient. Making villages attractive, economically strong and self- reliant in food does not require a team of Einsteins. What it does however require is less greed on the part of the haves and a more forthcoming attitude to equity on the part of governments. One simply cannot go wrong following Bapu’s line that “there is enough for everyones’ need.” If it is not a sense of fair play and justice that kicks in, looking around the landscape, perhaps enlightened self-interest and a strong instinct for survival will persuade the haves to do it differently otherwise there really could be an Asian Autumn on the horizon.
What is so challenging about making villages economically viable and attractive places to be? All of Europe is a seamless confluence of cities, towns and villages. The hoi polloi often choose to live in villages and commute to work rather than live in big shiny cities like Frankfurt and Dusseldorf, because they prefer that lifestyle. India’s own highly skewed experiment with NREGA reveals that when people get work at home, they have no desire to leave and wander off to live like beggars on the footpaths of Delhi and Mumbai. The current NREGA is not the answer to India’s social inequities but it makes the point that people do not wish to leave their homes if they can help it.
It is absolutely vital, for a number of reasons, that India finally takes the plunge to do the right thing and bring in greater equity. With almost half the farmers in the country wanting to abandon farming and no alternative occupations and livelihoods in sight, the hunger and deprivation of rural India surging into cities will finally break the fragile peace of today. We must act while there is still time.

Dr Suman Sahai, a genetic scientist who has served on the faculty of the Universities of Chicago and Heidelberg, is convener of the Gene Campaign

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