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Nature’s Tsunami And The Man-made Perennial Tsunami ---Poverty

By Dr. Mervyn D. De Silva

The nineteenth century British Civil Servant who had perceived a disquieting disconnect between the Colonial Indian administration and the appalling inequities in the Socio-economic conditions of the vast majority of the local people, pointed out that “you cannot have separate unequal people living alongside one another in great riches and deep poverty without inviting catastrophe”. That man was Allan Octavian Hume who founded the Indian National Congress in 1885. What the sagacious and humane visionary of that era perceived in 1885 assumes absolute pertinence today in the light of the widespread poverty manifest, not in the least in India, but throughout the entire world of the 21st century, and even, in the richest of countries. One of the reasons that has strong validity that can be advanced to explain why this pathetic global situation has arisen is, that the “prosperity” that the apostles of the neo-liberal economic dogma have preached relentlessly eluded millions of people. Over the past decades on the other hand, it had served to heighten the darkness of injustice, unarguably, the supreme, cardinal, cause of the darkness of violence, hatred, terrorism, wars, and bloodshed.

The culmination of the continuous history of the dominant economic paradigm and the policies, based on assumptions, that flow from it that creates great wealth and simultaneously creates great poverty and social distress is now catching up with the world. It was forcibly driven home into the minds of many perceptive people during the Tsunami disaster of December, 2004. The remains of the damage done to the simple life style abodes of the poor left behind as it ravaged the coast of many South Asian countries, was ample evidence of the truth that “prosperity” had turned its back on millions of people, even before the Tsunami struck.

The extent to which ”unequal people have been living alongside one another in great riches (Tourist hotels and resorts) and deep poverty (fishermen, workers and their families) was penetratingly brought before the eyes of the world by the electronic media. This time around, and perhaps, because, it was well known that many westerners leave their winter bound homes and travel to the sun-lit sandy beaches of the third world countries were also to become victims of nature in rebellion.

The luxury hotels and leisure resorts owned and managed by local and foreign companies, though partially damaged, stood out in striking contrast amidst the shambles of the wood, cadjan, and one-brick walled houses of the poor fisher community as if in testimony of the glaring differences referred to. Harward economist, Dr. Jeffrey Sachs who spear-headed the World Bank agenda during Russia’s economic transition following the collapse of the Soviet Union, recognized this difference on a wider world-wide screen. In an essay entitled “The class system of catastrophe”, Dr. Sachs argues that “what the rich world suffers as hardships, the poor world suffers as mass death”. He goes on to fault the USA and other rich countries for channeling the abundances of their wealth and resources for military research armaments, instead of addressing the resolvable socio-economic problems with far extending implications, and reaching out to those less fortunate countries and their desperately poor citizens.

Fishing accounts for a fair share of the GNP in most of these countries (4 % in Sri Lanka) yet, the conditions under which these producers have to live is a scandal that should impel serious thinking among the development policy framers in the countries concerned and the International donor countries and agencies. The fishing villages that dot the coast line are rooted in a culture and traditions that go far back into the distant past. Any comprehensive plans drawn up for their rehabilitation must necessarily address the multiplicity of economic, social, and cultural factors that have supported them through the years and must be recognized. It is inadvisable to barter them for any sort of political expediency or, the convenience of the “metropols” without suffering the emergence of a new set of problems later in time.

Nature’s Tsunami took away a large number of innocent people of all races and religions within a few minutes, while the perennial economic Tsunami of poverty condemns millions of people to the misery of prolonged and slow deaths. These tragedies somehow escape the focus and attention of the powerful western media which however, through the coverage of the December 26th Tsunami, opened the flood gates of human compassion and generosity. Why wasn’t the deep anguish, the depth and magnitude of billions of people wallowing in the uncertainty of their next meal, of hunger, starvation, and death, similarly monitored and shown on the TV screens; Question mark.

The countries that were severely affected by the Tsunami are located in South Asia, one of the most deprived regions of the world where the people face degrading and dehumanizing poverty. According to World Bank estimates, it has a per capita GNP of approximately US $ 310, which is less than one fifth of that obtained by the industrialized rich countries. Unsurprisingly, out of a population of 1.2 billion which is equal to one fifth (1/5th ) of humanity nearly 500 million people live in absolute poverty. Here, it must not be forgotten that the countries in this region once justly proud of their heritage of the Indus Valley Civilisation suffered economically, socially and culturally for decades under the tutelage of colonial rule.

The adult literacy rate is South Asia is 46%, the lowest in the world with more children reported to be out of school than the rest of the world. About 260 million people, equal approximately to the total population of the United States, lack access to basic health care that can prevent increasing health disorders; 337million people do not have safe drinking water; 830 million people do not have even rudimentary sanitation facilities; and , 400 million people go hungry to bed.

What does hunger mean to those who have not suffered it? To grandmother in Transkei, South Africa, who supports her grand children on a small pension, it means that she has nothing at all to fill the empty stomach of her grand children. In her own word, “I boil water, and hope the children fall asleep before they know there is no food in the water”.

In order to grasp what the pain and agony means to the 400 million people in South Asia one has to suffer it or, depend on the experiences of others. Novelist, Richard Wright who experienced hunger during his early life thus describes in his won words:-

“Hunger stole upon me so slowly that at first I was not aware of what hunger really meant. Hunger had always been more or less at my elbow when I played, but now I began to wake up at night to find hunger standing at my bedside, staring at me gauntly.the hunger I had known before this had been no grim, hostile, stranger; it had been a normal hunger that had made me beg constantly for bread, and when I ate a crust or two I was satisfied. But this new hunger baffled me, scared me, made me angry and insistent.

Whenever I begged for food now my mother would pour me a cup of tea which would still the clamour in my stomach for a moment or two; but a little later, I would feel hunger nudging my ribs, twisting my empty guts until they ached. I would grow dizzy and my vision would dim. I became less active in my play and for the first time in my life I had to pause and think what was happening to me”.

Just as novelist, Richard Wright, “paused and thought of what was happening to him”, after the exposure of the Tsunami disaster, the International community, and particularly the rich countries, need to look at the damage done by the hidden economic Tsunamis of scandalous persistent poverty. To be honest it might be necessary to come to grips with the simple fact and realization that poverty is not the real problem, but rather, that the real problem is the division of mankind into rich and poor within countries and between nations. It has resulted in creating gaps that must be closed, not as an option, but as a necessity. There are strong reasons for bridging the economic fault lines not only to ensure a violence-free world, but also because it is an ethical, social, political and moral imperative to do so. There has to be a comprehensive reviews of the whole raft of questionable assumptions of economic models, with the emphasis on people-centered development strategies. There is an urgent need to look critically at the decisions taken by multilateral and Aid agencies that set the context in which the poor suffer and starve; And, the World’s financial apparatus and its mechanisms, and how the complexity with which finance is used to exploit men and women. Otherwise, the perennial economic Tsunamis will continue with increasing severity and the tectonic plates between the haves and have nots will erupt into global unrest.

Former, World bank president, Dr. Barber Constable made these remarks some time ago on the clichés of humanitarians, aid givers, and politicians.

Our Institution is mighty in resources and experience, but its labour will count for nothing,if it cannot look at our world through the eyes of the most under priviledged, if we cannot share their hopes and their fears

It was a frail body packed with more power than any of the G-8 world figures, an unelected spokes woman of the poor, that boldly carried the simple yet compelling message “poverty is neither noble nor acceptable, social justice does not automatically follow fitful economic development”. That woman was Mother Theresa of Calcutta, who dared to obliquely indict the International community and multilateral development organizations whose billions of dollars went back to the Aid-giving –so-called donors, lined the pockets of bureaucrats, while hardly effecting any structural changes that would once and for al lift the poor from their suffering and despair.

“ For those who are hungry, God is bread” - Mahatma Gandhi, 1946.



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