10 months ago

Highest inequality of opportunities undermines South Asia

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South Asia is home to the world's highest inequality of opportunities, the World Bank discloses in its latest report on regional economy on Tuesday last. The shocks suffered by the region in the past three years---first on account of Covid-19 and then the Ukraine war--- seem to have further distorted the already uneven development of human capital. Notwithstanding imperfect parameters, the region witnessed sustained economic growth over the past two decades and 'lifted 250 million people out of extreme poverty and improved living standards'. This shows that even with trickle-down benefits, millions of people here could improve their lot to some extent.

Whether it was enough for the purpose is, however, a different proposition. Wealth creation or capital formation has been quite phenomenal but at the cost of economic and social justice with yawning disparities undermining economic development and social progress. Even in Bangladesh, Bhutan and Sri Lanka where unequal opportunities, according to the multilateral lender, have been comparatively less persistent and punishing, the rise of a growing class of nouveau riche was the natural outcome.

Free-market economy encourages ways and means not always morally or ethically correct to fuel consumerism and acquire wealth. This is why the superrich could gain more and more wealth during the pandemic almost all across the world. Yet there is a fundamental difference between the modes of wealth acquisition by the rich and superrich in the developed West and their counterparts in less developed and developing countries. Tech giants and manufacturing conglomerates in the advanced countries not only produce large and small sophisticated machines, gadgets, devices and quality consumer goods but also invent cutting-edge technologies, equipment and appliances with universal appeal. But the same cannot be said about the wealthy in other parts, barring a few Southeast Asian nations and industrialists elsewhere, of the world. They just thrive on trade in goods and gadgets of foreign origin.

Of course, the speculative market plays a big role here. But there are devious ways of accumulating wealth. Defaulting on loans, siphoning off wealth and a host of other means of robbing of the country of birth go behind the making of a perverted class of the rich and superrich. A classic case is Gautam Adani of India who once rose to the third position on the list of the world's top rich band of people. When Hindenburg Research, a US investment research firm, exposed the 'largest con in corporate history', shares of Adani group of companies started plummeting. If similar were the cases with corporate malfeasance everywhere, distributive justice would surely have a better chance in society at large, opening more avenues for equal opportunities.

Had the spread of equality of opportunities been comprehensive, social divides would not be so unsurpassable as it is now for segments lying low at the bottom. Inequality manifests itself in various forms of social ills. While the top foreign exchange earner in the country--- RMG that is, for example, refuses to pay a decent living wage to its workers, their productivity level is lower than their counterparts in the competing countries except only Cambodia. The Asian Productivity Organisation (APO) data show that the average level of annual productivity of a Bangladeshi worker is worth $10,400 while for a Vietnamese, it is $12,700, for an Indian it is $15,800 and for a Chinese it is $23,800. Clearly, deprivation leads to all-round maladjustment of physical ability and skill and mental resourcefulness alongside no chance of breaking the boundary of oppressive living standard and class barrier.

In an incisive probe into the conditions in South Asia, the WB finds that 40 to 60 per cent of overall inequality here is conditional to circumstances beyond the control of an individual. These are 'place of birth, family background, caste, ethnicity and gender'. The oppressive cry of the soul of the most vulnerable and marginalised falls on the deaf ears of a soulless world. One does not have to be a Karl Marx or communist to learn how capital gets formed on exploitation of the main driver, workers to be precise, of industries.

By no means social safety net's utility can be undermined. But clearly, it is no substitute for income earned independently by labour and leading a decent life. Creation of employment opportunities is a sine qua non but in a competitive world, the challenge is to acquire education in demand and the right sets of skills. Young people with the underprivileged family background stand little chance of acquiring these two basic requirements in order to make a move up the social ladder.

Thus the existing social setup is unfavourable for reducing socio-economic disparities. The governments, instead, go for making social benefits available to the poor and vulnerable. In rich countries, they even offer unemployment benefits as a compensation for not providing employment for the jobless. This arrangement camouflages social inequality and deprivation but even it is better than doing nothing for the unemployed. At least the beneficiaries can use the largesse until they land a paying job to pull them out of the rut.

This world produces more foods than its population needs but food politics and commerce stand in the way of hungry million's access to the eatables. Foods go waste rather than reach the needy to perpetrate inequality. Here lies the genesis of discrimination.


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