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An Insight on the Unemployment Amidst the COVID-19 in South Asia

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54-year old street-vendor, Kashem,is a daily basis wage-earner who lives in a congested slum in the city of Dhaka, Bangladesh. He lost his wife 9 years ago. He has a 16-yearold daughter, Kulsum, who is a low paid readymade garment worker. Recently, she lost her job due to the COVID-19. Kashemis also unable to re-open his street shop because of present countywide ‘lockdown’. Kashem’s life now stands on a double-edge sword: outside the house is the fear of rapidly contagious pandemic and inside the house is starvation and half-starvation without any income. Suffering is endless here for Kashem who without any kind of savings or income generation has to pay house-rent and maintain livelihoods. This story of suffering is not only about Kashemand Kulsum, but also about almost half of the population in Bangladesh and across South Asia: a garment worker, a street vendor, a rickshaw puller, a construction worker, a transport worker and it goes on and on. Even the fear of laying off hits the private sector executive level job market also. Recently, at least dozens of prominent mass media houses in Bangladesh sacked their officials and employees as the pandemic ascended. One of the prominent TV channels in the country not to be named fired 3 of its staffson the very day of the World Press Freedom Day this year. This demonstrates the magnitude of the crisis the country is facing today and going to face in coming days.

Researchers from Dhaka University’s Institute of Health Economics estimate that, around 15 million people of different sectors will become unemployed in Bangladesh due to the slowdown of trade and business caused by deadly virus. Moreover, some Bangladeshi economist and analyst estimated that nearly 20 million people might lose their jobless due to COVID-19 crisis. They estimated that people who are involved in labor-oriented sectors like garment workers, construction workers, transport workers have already become temporarily jobless, which putting serious stress on the economy and it will have a huge adverse impact on livelihoods. Day-laborers, transport workers, hawkers, the employees of hotels, restaurants, and different shops and other informal workers are the worst victims of the halt in economic activity as they have lost their means to earn bread and butter. According to the Labor Force Survey-2017, around 60.8 million people were involved in various economic activities while informal employment or labor-oriented sectors were dominating as 85.1 percent of the total population in Bangladesh. The contribution of informal jobs to urban areas was 13.1 million and 38.6 million in rural areas.

According to Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics (BBS),around 34 million people, or 20.5 per cent of the population, live below the poverty line. So, there is no alternative but to provide a huge amount of government assistance to keep this population alive. The government announced the incentive package but it’s not sufficient for the large number of population. People need basic things at the time of the pandemic. So, the government has to increase health care as well as grass-feeding and keep them alive.

The pandemic has brought much hardship to workers in informal sectors or labor-oriented sectors, including some unnoticed vulnerable class of workers like sex worker and transgender communities. SexWorker Network in Bangladesh, a sex-worker-right monitor, estimated that at least 8,000 of sex workers have already become homeless in Dhaka. About 150,000 sex workers in Bangladesh are one of the worst hit communities following the ‘shutdown’. On top of that these communities receive no attention from the government or civil society aid groups leading to exacerbated endurance for these communities. 

The unemployment scenario is more or less the same across the South Asia.  Similarly, in India, the countrywide lockdown to control the spread of coronavirus has seen 122 million Indians lose their jobs in April alone. India’s unemployment rate is now at a record peak of 27.1%, according to the Centre for Monitoring the Indian Economy (CMIE). Unemployment hits 23.5% in April, a sharp spike from 8.7% in March. And the unemployment rate is the highest in the urban areas. The findings of the survey estimate that the worst situation is in Puducherry, Tamil Nadu, Jharkhand, and Bihar. There is an unemployment rate peaking about 50 percent. But hilly States had the lowest incidence of unemployment as of April, the survey said, pointing out that the rate in Himachal Pradesh stood at 2.2%, Sikkim at 2.3% and Uttarakhand at 6.5%.

Meanwhile in Pakistan, the Federal Minister for Planning and Development, Asad Umar, predicted that around 18 million people might lose their jobs as a result of lockdowns. But Pakistan makes a pleasant paradigm to prevent the worst unemployment situation. world fifth populated country Pakistan takes a green stimulus scheme, which is a win-win for the given environment and the overthrown unemployed population. Lahore has created more than 63,000 jobs for unemployed day laborers or labor-oriented workers and by relaunching the nation’s ambitious 10 billion Tree Tsunami Campaign. This project is a part of Pakistan’s existing initiative to plant billions of trees to counter the effects of climate change. Similar to other South Asian countries, Pakistan is badly affected by climate change, experiencing more than 150 extreme weather events between 1999 and 2018. Another step is, PM Imran Khan launched a web portal for the victims of lockdown. Those who have lost their jobs, will be able to register themselves on the portal. Under this Ehsaas Emergency Cash program, registered unemployed will be given a maximum RS 12,000.

In Afghanistan, according to data by the Biruni Institute, a local economic think-tank, as a result of the pandemic, 6 million people have already lost their jobs in the country where 80 percent of people live below the poverty line. The political crisis is the other reason for unemployment in the country. The political crisis, security threats, the lockdown of cities, and the reduction of international are the great matter of concern the war-ravaged Afghanistan. The Ministry of Economy had warned earlier that unemployment in Afghanistan will increase by 40% and poverty will increase by 70% because of unemployment and the spread of the COVID-19. But the ray of hope is, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) approved $220 million in emergency aid for Afghanistan to help cushion the economic impact of the coronavirus pandemic. Other countries in South Asia are also experiencing the rampage of pandemic while poverty was already an embedded part of their economy. Pre-pandemic poverty rate as estimated: 8.2 percent in both Bhutan and the Maldives, 25 percent in Nepal, 33 percent in Sri Lanka. This rate is highly likely to increase in an unprecedented scale. 

The International Labour Organization said, nearly half the world’s workers are at immediate risk of losing their jobs. The sobering statement will ring alarm bells in economies around the world, with every nation on the planet likely to be affected by the devastating fallout from the spread of coronavirus. Some 1.6 billion workers in the informal or labor-oriented sectors, almost half of the global labor force, as well as those at the most vulnerable end of the employment ladder are in danger of losing their livelihoods.

South Asia is home to over 1.8 billion people and houses half of the world’s impoverished communities. The region has the potential to become the factory of the world next to China as the world is turning back to China. But uncertainty remains how the region will overcome the upcoming post-pandemic recession and will feed the workforce to remain alive to take over the global labor market.  Nonetheless, some employers are taking advantage of pandemic period by soaring the labor oppression which is not a humanistic approach and will lead to the trust-crisis and labor-unrest in the region. That said, South Asian leaders should work together to build the region during the pandemic and post-pandemic recession  How was the May Day this year for laborers and working-class people was better understood by laborers and working-class people who lost their earnings or only means of livelihoods due to the COVID-19 pandemic. I wish them a late happy May Day and long-lasting solidarity.

Mohammad Kepayet Ullah is a Bangladeshi journalist and South Asian geopolitical analyst. He can be contacted at kepayet01mcj[at]gmail.com

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South Asia

‘External forces’ won’t decide the actions of New Delhi

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India’s farmer’s protest is in the news for a while for the obvious reasons. In a democracy there should be protests, it keeps the power balanced. However, in India, the protestors and the government are both facing a common challenge, that is the external influence. To which, Indian External Affairs Minister and other government wings already made public statements. Before understanding the external factors, one needs to look into the farmer’s protest.

What are the farm laws?

Last year Government of India passed three laws in order to bring a reform in the agriculture sector in India, which are:

  1. The Farmers’ Produce Trade and Commerce (Promotion and Facilitation) Act – provides for setting up a mechanism allowing the farmers to sell their farm produces outside the Agriculture Produce Market Committees (APMCs). Any licence-holder trader can buy the produce from the farmers at mutually agreed prices. This trade of farm produces will be free of mandi (marketplace) tax imposed by the state governments.
  2. The Farmers (Empowerment and Protection) Agreement of Price Assurance – Allows farmers to do contract farming and market their produces freely.
  3. Farm Services Act, and The Essential Commodities (Amendment) Act – amendment to the existing Essential Commodities Act. This law now frees items such as foodgrains, pulses, edible oils and onion for trade except in extraordinary (read crisis) situations.

According to the government – the new laws will help to strengthen basic farm sector infrastructure through greater private investments. Successive governments have found financial constraints in investing in farm and rural infrastructure. It is argued that with food markets growing exponentially in India, private players would make agriculture profitable for the farmers.

Why farmers are protesting?

It’s been around 3 months since the Farmers are protesting in North India, on the highways en-route Delhi. Despite having rounds of talks between the government and the farmers, they’re yet to find a common understanding.

Farmers are worried as they feel this may impact the existing structure and lead to the corporatization of the agriculture sector in which the big corporations will exploit the farmers. Moreover, the new farm bill talks about the establishment of the private Agriculture Produce Market Committee, which in turn will end the role of middleman involved in the market, However, the middleman is seen by farmers, not as one exploiting them but one who provides services to them. Their number in two states – Punjab & Haryana could cross 100,000. So, farmers and middleman fear that this will ultimately result in huge job loss and impact the structure.

Another point farmers fears that from individual-to-individual relation, these bills will change the market into the individual to corporate relations. With a changed dispute settlement mechanism the farmers also are worried that their pleas could not get the desired settlement.

MSP – Minimum Support Price is another demand forwarded by the farmers, which they apprehend that allowing outside-APMC trade of farm produces would lead to lesser buying by the government agencies in the approved Mandis (marketplace). The protesting farmers say the new laws would thus make the MSP system irrelevant and they would not have any assured income from their farming. Right now, the government announces fixed MSP for around two dozen crops.

The working of the MSP system has been such over the years that it benefits only a handful of farmers at the all-India level. The Shanta Kumar committee set up by the Modi government in 2015 says that only six percent of farmers benefit from the MSP regime.

The catch here is that for farmers of some states such as Punjab and Haryana, the MSP system has worked well. In these two states procurement of paddy and wheat range around 75-80 per cent.

So, the fear that the MSP system may crumble and get dismantled after the new farm laws are implement has become a very emotive issue for the farmers of Punjab and Haryana. And, that is why they are the ones who are most vocal in their protest against the farm laws and demanding that the MSP should be made mandatory for both APMC and private Mandis (marketplace).

The government, however, is constantly in touch with the farmers and trying to resolve the issues through dialogue and till then the laws have been kept on hold while talks are held.

External group’s interference

Many external elements are interfering in the protests and challenging the government, including a few fringes and notorious separatist organisations which are based and nurtured by the West during the days of the cold war days for the obvious reasons. In the garb of human rights and democracy, they know it very well that how to destabilise a nation. There are many examples in front of us, the Russian protests being one of them. 

The world has seen how after the new U.S. government’s arrival in the United States set the narrative for the socialist lobby around the world. President Trump very well assessed the threats of such groups and kept them in check but the new administration seems to propagate their ideology as the state policy. 

When President Biden said, “We must meet the ‘new moment’ accelerating global challenges” it indicates toward continuing the policies of Obama administration with new added ‘Biden’ characteristics. 

The tweets by American celebrities and people with clear political leaning are not about the protests, they in fact, do not know much about the protest, and their idea is to attack the ideology which doesn’t meet theirs. India is a land of protests, revolution, ideas and ideologies and both the Government of India and Indians respect the thoughts across the spectrum.

One of the American Congresswomen said that she will continue to monitor this situation closely and another expressed the solidarity but their thoughts are not driven by the plights of farmers, rather a particular ideology.

Recently, the State Department welcomed the reforms by the Indian government and also advocates for the protests. Which is contradicting in itself. India as a bearer of an Independent Foreign Policy should avoid any validation by any foreign government and let not the tweets by a particular mindset decide the course of protest or government actions.

India as a democracy respect different ideas but can’t allow any ‘vested interest’ groups influence any actions by New Delhi.

From our partner International Affairs

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Forced Cremation: Another bout of marginalisation in Sri Lanka

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A thermometer gun is used to take a boy's temperature in Sri Lanka. © UNICEF/Chameera Laknath

The agony of the Sri Lankan civil war is not worn off from history as yet. The 26-year war decimated the foundations of the country and highlighted the separatist fragment of the society. The massacre of the Muslim community and the wounds left to fester since 1990’s riots have still not subsided even after three decades. While the clash of the Sinhalese and Tamils climaxed in 2009, the violence against the Muslim minority never ceased. The recent strike over the rights of minorities is the forceful cremation of the deceased in the line of Covid prevention adopted by the Sri Lankan government. Regardless of the religious doctrines guiding the final proceedings of the dead, the Sri Lankan regime continues to ploy to utilise the pandemic as a tool to forcefully cremate the deceased Muslims irrespective of the sentiments of the Muslim families.

Sri Lanka, officially known as the ‘Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka’, is a South Asian country forming a tear-drop below the Indian subcontinent and located at the southwestern edge of the Bay of Bengal. The country was bloodied by the infamous civil war that incited in 1983; claiming mounds of lives and consuming countless communities. The 1990 Massacre was the flash point of the civil war; mosques attacked in the town of Batticaloa resulting in 300 Muslims brutally slain as a drive against the Sinhalese government. The end of the civil war should have marked an end to the inhumanity bestowed upon the Muslim minority given the fall of the ‘Tamil Tigers’; the main culprits of the 1990 massacre. However, the religious violence exponentiated instead of contracting under the Sinhalese dominated Sri Lanka as the anti-Muslimism campaigns picked up pace over the last decade, leaving the Muslim minority, making only 9% of the total population, insecure with respect to safety of life and prosperity.

Over the course of the decade, the spree of violence and discrimination against the Muslims transitioned into bloody chaos claiming mosques, shops and even crippling entire towns dwelled by the Muslims. The anti-Muslimism rhetoric led by the extremist Buddhist group ‘Bodu Bala Sena (BBS)’, backed by the Sinhalese government, paved the riots against the Muslim community in the form of mobs ravaging the Muslim towns during systematic protests. The repeated calls for protection went unheeded by the Sinhalese Buddhist Revivalist Groups, further nudging and encouraging the extremist monks to spread hatred against the Muslim community which came across as the mobster mentality boldly continued to oppress the Muslims.

The Human Rights abuse under the regime of president Gotabaya Rajapaksa and his brother, the Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa, has surpassed all the records of injustice etched in the Sri Lankan history. His promises to bring back the Muslims displaced amidst the civil war went in vain and he proved to be as much of a biased leader as his brother. When Gotabaya came into power in 2019, the Sinhalese Buddhist Nationalist Party (SLPP) had been mongering extremism under the pretence of mob-attacks while backing groups like BBS to simmer hatred and prejudice against the Muslim community. The Rajapaksa brothers are notorious of their Burma-like mentality of ethnic cleansing, rumoured to be following the footsteps of Myanmar to thin the Muslim minority in a similar exercise of genocide as against the Rohingya Muslims. Though the ‘ethnic cleaning’ allegations have been repeatedly put down by the SLPP leaders, the historical bloodletting of the Muslim community and the irrational policies adopted under the charter of litigation point to a very different and bleak picture of politics in Sri Lanka.

Since the Sri Lankan government adopted the mandatory cremation policy in March 2020, more than 80 deceased Muslims have been forcibly cremated against the will of their families. While the Rajapaksa-regime uses forced cremation as another tool to torment the Muslim community by trampling on their basic rights in the guise of Covid-prevention, World Health Organisation (WHO), along with the Sri Lankan doctors, has rejected the justification provided by President Gotabaya for adopting cremation as a safety procedure to prevent water contamination due to rituals related to burial. Despite of the assurance of WHO, the Sri Lankan government not only refused to consider burial as an accepted method but even the Supreme Court expended no time to shun the petitions filed against the forcible cremation law, pushing injustice in the face of the Muslim minorities. The UN experts remarked on the systematic persecution of the Muslim community: “We deplore the implementation of such Public Health decisions based on discrimination, aggressive nationalism and ethnocentrism amounting to persecution of the Muslims and other minorities of the county”.

It is clear from the stern attitude of the Rajapaksa-regime that it aims to undermine the voice of the minorities by crushing the rights and subsequently silencing the protests that ensue from the inhuman treatment. Though the global political circles have responded strictly to the ghastly abuse of power in Sri Lanka; UK being the prime country to hold active protests against the violation of human rights and even UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Michelle Bachelet, threatening sanctions on Sri Lanka for proactively transgressing the rights of minorities. However, despite of the pressure building up, the spokesperson of the Sri Lankan government, Keheliya Rambukwella, rebutted the allegations by stating: “We do things only on expert advice and cannot take ad-hoc decisions”. The juvenile statements followed by the aggressive attempts to subterfuge the global community are enough to expose the extremist mindset of the Sri Lankan government. The debacle that is to follow, in retrospect, could be far worse than the civil war since even the dead are not spared of the tyranny in today’s day and age.

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From Gandhi to Modi: Exploitation of Svadharma

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Hinduism is depicted as the world’s oldest religion, with roots and customs dating back to more than a 4,000 years. As of now, it constitutes of around 900 million followers, and is the 3rd most practiced religion after Christianity and Islam. In essence, Hinduism carries main concern over the mind, spirit and body of individuals, where non-violent actions that result spiritual peace of these identities are idealized. Moving forward, the central notion of Hinduism revolves around dharma, which can be associated with the overall duties and responsibilities of individuals in society, with accordance to ethical and moral practices that highlight non-violence. Notwithstanding, Hindus are also disposed to choosing their individual dharma in accord with their consciousness, intellect, and circumstances. This is coined as svadharma, and includes the duties and responsibilities of Hindus in relation to fellow beings and the total environment they reside in. Consequently, the attainment of peace is promoted through fulfilment of life goals, and the abandonment of stormy conditions. Since Svadharma as a concept is up for interpretation, it varies from individual to individual. In fact, due to its subjective nature, it also leaves room for religious exploitation in the lust for political objectives. This essay will aim to put forward the true depiction of svadharma through analyzing Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s Satyagraha; adding on, the exploitation for political incentives shall be explained through BJP’s Hindutva ideology.

To begin, Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi’s interpretation of svadharma resulted in Satyagraha, which can be portrayed as a revolutionary step towards non-violent non- cooperation against the British rule in India. Gandhi’s philosophy of Satyagraha was a natural outcome of the supreme concept of truth. According to which, if the truth can be deemed as the ultimate reality, its protection is critical. Hence, Satyagraha refers to the exercise of the truth against all injustices, oppressions and exploitations; which ultimately results in peace on an individual and societal level. It essentially embodies the notion of peace from Hinduism. To add on, for the attainment of fighting oppression through non-violent means, he embraced yogic strength to endure the most intense physical pain, including food and sleep deprivation without any flinching or any fear. Gandhi served as an influence to millions of his unarmed followers, through serving as a symbol of divine strength and passion. Consequently, a mass revolution was launched against the then British Empire, formally regarded as the non-cooperation movement.

 In order to stay true to the divine and peaceful teachings of Hinduism, he commanded individuals to undertake the process of obeying the civil and moral laws of the state, while simultaneously resisting laws that were oppressive and barbaric. As a result, Gandhi laid down certain standards of moral discipline for the Satyagraha process, which were: complete faith in God in order to calmly bear the physical barbarisms directed towards individuals by the British forces, not yearning after wealth and fame, submitting to the leader of the Satyagraha unit, absolutely fearlessness and firmness against brutality, single-minded purposefulness, and individuals losing sight of their duty through the virtue of anger or any other passion. Thus, Gandhi wanted to incorporate attitudes penetrating towards toleration and acceptance of the hardships that came along with this movement. Overall, Gandhi’s svadharma allowed him to attain political gains without resorting to violence, which resulted in peaceful change. In Gandhi’s words, complete civil disobedience through refusing to serve compliance to state- made-law can be an extremely powerful movement. In fact, it can become more effective in comparison to than an armed rebellion; as, it does not include the suffering of the innocent individuals on a wide scale.

Satyagraha was a peaceful and inclusive movement that arose of svadharma; nevertheless, the concept of svadharma also introduced Hindutva, which is an extremist ideology with aims to disintegrate India’s secular outlook through transforming the country into a Hindu Rasht (a majoritarian Hindu religious-nationalist state that directs its 200 million Muslims and 30 million Christians into second-class citizens). In theory this concept goes against the very teachings of Hinduism, which revolves around peace and non-violence. Nevertheless, the concept of svadharma has been exploited and misused; as, Hindu extremists incorporate this notion to justify their horrific acts to attain political interests. The word Hindutva was introduced by the 20th century ideologue V.D. Savarkar, and it literally means “Hinduness.” The central concept was the embodiment of religious nationalism with territorial belongings and citizenship. Meaning, being an Indian was equated to following the religion of Hinduism; as, India was the spiritual motherland of Hindus. This was a problem for Indian Muslims and Christians; as, their holy lands were constituents of other states. Therefore, Hindutva followers disregarded Muslims and Christians as citizens of India. The current Indian government Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) led by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has been assimilated under the ideology of Hindutva, and this notion has brought them popularity in India. In fact, this ideology was incorporated by them to come into power, which highlights the exploitation of svadharma. As a result, forcible integration into an outward Hinduness is being conducted in India. In recent years, India has witnessed Hindutva extremists killing Muslims due to various reasons ranging from consumption of beef to failing to chant the slogan “Jai Shri Ram” to hail a Hindu deity. Such actions are being conducted in order to compel the non-Hindu population into embracing Hinduism. However, at the end of the day, Hindutva is simply an exploitation of svadharma; as, it does not acquire to its peaceful and non-violent requirements. Moreover, svadharma aims to bring about peace on an individual and societal level; and, Hindutva is simply leading to chaos and riots in India. Through this the fact that Hindutva was a political goal for Modi to come into power is highlighted.

In conclusion, Hinduism is a religion that promotes the concept of non-violence and peaceful co-existence. Over the years, svadharma has been carried out by multiple personalities across India, in order to highlight their roles and responsibilities in insuring a peaceful through their personal interpretation, most notable of which are Gandhi and Modi. Nevertheless, the difference lies in their intentions and ultimate goal. While Gandhi carried a goal of attaining interests of the Indian population through non-violent means, Modi carried the aim of coming into power. Thus, Modi did not follow the true essence of svadharma and simply exploited.

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