Social Protection In South Asia

Dev Raj Dahal

Economic growth in South Asia saw the decline of poverty. Still, 40 per cent of its people are poor. Poverty reflects an unjust order because those at the bottom of development statistics are governed by necessity, not freedom of choice to enter into multiple social contracts noshed by the gleam of modernity. Judicious harnessing of the region’s great natural, human and scientific potential for inclusive and equitable economic growth can alleviate scarcity, reduce ecological and social risks and maintain a balance between upward integration of economy and downward benefits to the people experiencing hierarchical social order and uneven opportunities. The constitutions of the region seek humanitarian standards and moral obligation of the state to tax the wealthy and powerful to subsidise social protection. It is justified to stabilise the life of the poor in society and make community building a robust enterprise.

International assistance does not solely presume the triumph of free market forces. It is about securing human rights, building the capacity of people for resilience and protecting them from the birthing of multiple risks -- hunger, child labour, joblessness, social alienation, gender violence, illness, old age, disability and vulnerability arising from structural injustice, terrorism, climate change and ungoverned space. Only a caring society can enable people to scramble to escape these risks and becoming propulsive. It is the hallmark of flourishing civilisation. This caring calls for a dramatic change in the performance of South Asian states, public institutions, business and civil society, not just economic growth which is relatively better.
The heritage of South Asia operating under the Karmic moral accounting of the universe often sought to remove the structural dualism between the duty to maintain certain social standards and freedom to accumulate. This heritage reconciles rational order with the politics of giving and setting ecological, social, gender and intergenerational justice. South Asia shares a common political economy. It has evolved a regional public based on collective aspiration for a democratic life. There is a positive demographic dividend, youth occupies the largest size. Except the Maldives and Bhutan, all the countries are labour surplus and labour exporting countries. The remittance flowing though migration of youth force has contributed to the life of rural economy, improved their food, health and educational quality and eased their burden of poverty. But it has also created a vicious cycle - enormous social costs, shortage of productive youth force and decline of domestic production. Other factors are flawed institutions, weak national integrity system and big-men politics which create losers in the distribution of political outcome.
The integration of South Asian labour market outside the region has increased common stake of regional states and people but owing to the shortfall of cohesive stand they lack leverage to effectively negotiate on behalf of their workers. As a result, social security of workers is determined by contractual obligation. Safety nets, social security, microcredit and employment programmes adopted in South Asia as social protection mechanism are essential to foster the dignity of life. There are some common sets of welfare policies. All the eight countries of South Asia have espoused the concept of welfare state. As signatory of social contracts and a variety of universal rights, these states are obliged to create equal opportunity and uplift material condition of the peoples. The ongoing discussion in the region for the establishment of living wage or minimum wage for the poor aims at upscaling social and economic wellbeing beyond ruthless competition of market forces and optimising the return of financial and technological capital.
In some countries contributory nature of social security mechanism in the formal sector is determined by the rules of procedural distribution of benefits while in the informal sector income is determined by scalar distribution - the more the people work, the better they can earn. Labour markets continue to suffer from high rates of informal and agricultural employment where jobs are poorly paid and unprotected, others are transmitting poverty at inter-generational level. Labour market intervention, social insurance and social assistance for the helpless are essential social protection measures to harness hope of people in political leadership. People can flourish in civic norms, guaranteed rights and adequate social investments including education, skill and information enabling them to compete in the competitive job market to become ownership of their nation-states.
Social charter of the region seeks to achieve poverty eradication, population stabilisation, empowerment of women, youth mobilisation, human resource development, promotion of health and nutrition and protection of children. The adoption of social charter by regional states tends to combine need-based justice and burden sharing of the poor, marginalised, women and children to materialise the rights-based fairness. The means of social protection is essential for dignified living. But they are, however, fragmented not only along line agencies of the states but also at the level of governance - international regimes, the states, markets and micro local institutions, such as NGOs, civil society and community-based organisations lacking a virtuous synergy of empathy and cooperation.
Many of them are less competitive requiring overarching framework for better governance -clear provision, coordination and monitoring in both formal and informal sectors. There are governance gaps between rising demands of people and informalisation of work contracts and inequality and short supply of public goods. Operation of social protection at multi-level governance has also imposed complexity in its management. How coordination is made for the implementation of social protection, social security and social charter since this job remains with national states based on their own political will, economic strength and institutional efficiency? Obviously, regional cooperation and mutual benevolence can reap the gift of accountability to each other and the ignored, marginalized and crushed peoples.
In this context, the ongoing debate on strengthening social protection in South Asia fits with the sustainable development goals as both aim to bridge the incoherence of ecological, social, economic and political policies and minimise disharmonies through the shared interest of the international community, state, employers, employees and ordinary citizens in mutually beneficial distribution of prosperity over diverse people. The liberal conception of stability, progress and peace requires the social solidarity to make each individual equal stakeholder. Poverty deprives the poor of their self-dignity and humanity and drives them to unknown destination as refugees, migrants, seasonal workers and permanent settlers.
South Asia has tremendous resource and human potential to reshape production and politics and transform the crisis discourse into a collective economic opportunity if impetus of social modernisation is allowed to reform suffocating practices of fatalism, justification of privilege and denial of human rights. The two decades of solution by financial capitalism yielded to the shortfalls in education, employment, health and environmental standards as it helped private business to accumulate money and weakened the capacity of state to regulate capital and manage redistributive justice.

Political will
Demonstration of political will is essential to upscale certain social and economic standards irrespective of the structure of economy and inspire the sceptics to build hope of social solidarity, emotional attachment and fulfilment. So long as peoples’ lives pivot on the concept of inadequate means of living, democratic and development discourse only inflame their passion, not peace, science and humanism. The ethics of responsibility of South Asian leadership must be based on equal consideration of interest to their peoples in order to evolve a caring community at multi-level governance and reshape public spheres to make life satisfying.
(Former Reader at the Department of Political Science, TU, Mr. Dahal writes on political and social issues)


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