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Year 2014: Democracy, markets firmly grip South Asia

Jan 01, 2015

Governments across South Asia will be tempted to emulate India's politics and market-led priorities as the country revamps its development model.

Kailash Satyarthi and Malala Yousafzai

New Delhi: The tragedy of a region ruled by old men with a history of marching their young boys to fight wars took a step for the worse as gunmen entered a school in the city of Peshawar. Young men, fighters and victims, brought to their deadly embrace, children. Peace took yet another knock.

In a statement released in the last week of the year, the United Nations (UN) raised concerns about the conditions of Afghanistan's children in 2014. Highlighting research that shows 40 percent of all Afghan children face nutritional risks and many suffer direct violence spilled-over from fighting between the Afghan government and militant groups, the agency's spokesperson said that more Afghan children than in any other year were said to have been affected by poverty and violence. "2014 was devastating year for millions of children," the spokesperson said while another UN official remarked, "Their future is the future of this country and they have suffered serious injuries."

2014 was a tumultuous year of bustling energies in a contiguous landmass encompassing the Hindukush-Himalyan ranges and home to the river basins of the Ganga and Bhramaputra. But alas! The outcomes could have been better.

Much of the energies, of course, went into the region charting its own future. 2014 saw (and with hope for 2015) a democratic South Asia as all countries in the region have elected governments. That is a change. Nepal, of course, awaits its new constitution.

Elections in two countries in the South Asia region propelled the region to the right. India voted a government that swears by the marketplace and the presidential and local elections in Afghanistan initiated a complex process of power transfer in the country, with potential to critically influence its post-2014 future and regional dynamics.

India’s parliamentary elections have also thrown up some tough governance challenges amid a deep restructuring of the country’s domestic political landscape and a slowing economy. The developments in both countries are interlinked with the security, political, and governance dynamics in Pakistan.

The elections might have heralded an era of hope -- but the burden of meeting these hopes might have to borne by the weak. India began a new chapter in its pilgrimage to industrialisation with rewriting the rules of environmental governance.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests asked the Environment Impact Assessment committee to hurry with the clearances and even as the chair of the committee decided not to engage with the process, the ministry set up another committee to oversee clearances for chemical industries. Environmentalists are not amused.

The torment of the environment versus development debate was further exaggerated by a former bureaucrat's going beyond his brief of suggesting amendments to existing laws and instead recommending an entirely new environmental governance architecture to align with the new government's line of thinking -- which is, industrialisation at any cost.

In doing so, a roadmap has been laid for 2015 where the regulatory framework (now called bottlenecks and delays) will be pave way for business. Environmental activists feel that this can erode the green cause and hurt the interests of tribal people and communities and forest dwellers. Somewhere in the script is an direction that industries will have to submit to heightened environmental integrity. But this has found few takers and rightly so as 30 years after the Bhopal gas leak, Warren Anderson mocked Indian law to catch up with him till his death this year.

But there was a bit of unquestionably good intention too -- a plan is under way for implementing a zero liquid discharge into the Ganga.

Further on the development front -- the ministry of rural development saw three ministers in the space of three months and the last of the three has huge disagreements with the Prime Minister's priority legislation on land reforms. Chaudhary Birender Singh, who represents the farming community north of the capital city of New Delhi, has reservations on the government's plans for amending the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act and the Land Acquisition Act.

The coming year will also see the first socio-economic caste census and huge activity in the direction of a cleaner India or Swachh Bharat.

On to replace the  at a new National Health Assurance Mission in place of the Universal Health Coverage with stress on insurance and more space for private players. Interestingly, 2015 will be a year for the citizen to receive a national list of essential medicines -- a list of medicines one can get for free from the government. This will be juxtaposed with the Indian system of medicines getting unprecedented attention from the government.

India's politics and right-wing priorities might be what South Asia will have to watch out for as all governments in the region have shown a definite tilt to the market Right.

2015 will also see India go out with a big shopping list -- global arms and ammunition traders will look for a market here.

2014 saw few big disasters hit the region. And, let us hope that holds true for 2015 as well.

That is a big hit -- given that two names from the region, Kailash Satyarthi and Malal Yusafzai won the Nobel Peace Prize. That is a signal for hope.

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