Inequity at birth, intra-generational inequity in adult life and inter-generational inequity pose a serious threat to sustainable human security and well-being.
Asia was for a long time known as a “sleeping giant” because of the dichotomy prevailing in most Asian countries between the prosperity of nature and the poverty of the people. The colonial powers came to the Asian countries because of the rich natural and mineral resource endowments of the countries of this vast continent. Asian countries are also rich in spiritual, cultural and culinary heritage. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution in Europe, technology divide has been an important factor in the North-South economic divide. Japan was the earliest country to master new technologies and to bring about a paradigm shift from unskilled to skilled work among its hard-working population. From 1980 onwards, China has mastered new technologies in every sphere of human endeavour, as was evident from the spectacular Olympic Games held in Beijing recently. Many Asian nations have also been making impressive progress in GDP growth in the post-colonial era. Asia is also the home of the Green Revolution in agriculture.3 major groups of inequities
In spite of impressive economic growth and technological capability, the Asian growth story is characterised by serious social inequities. The continent is witnessing many divides: urban-rural, digital, genetic, gender, social, economic and technological divides. The Asian identity is therefore one of ecstasy and agony. We can be proud of our ancient cultural heritage, and the more recent technological and athletic achievements. On the other hand, we are confronted with three major groups of inequities.Under-nutrition and malnutrition
The first and the cruellest form of inequity is the prevalence of widespread maternal and foetal under-nutrition and malnutrition, resulting in the birth of babies with low birth weight (LBW), of about 2.5 kg and below. Such children are disadvantaged at birth in relation to cognitive abilities and brain development. Thus a child, for no fault other than being born in a poor family, is denied an opportunity for the realisation of his or her innate genetic potential for physical and mental development. This situation is serious in several South Asian countries, where almost one out of every four newborn children is characterised by low birth weight. Denial of opportunities for intellectual development in the Knowledge Age in which we live, is inexcusable. Hence, there must be a serious effort to ensure that all pregnant women have access to an adequate and balanced diet, clean drinking water and environmental hygiene. Elimination of malnutrition-induced inequity at birth should receive the first priority in the struggle for growth with equity.
The second aspect of inclusive economic growth covers all forms of intra-generational equity. These include the goals of literacy, health, nutrition and work for all. Unfortunately, in all these basic minimum needs, inequity prevails to varying extents in different countries of Asia. Many Asian nations, with some notable exceptions like China and Vietnam, are yet to achieve a proportionate reduction in the number of malnourished children, women and men in order for them to achieve the first among the U.N. Millennium Development Goals, namely, reduction in the number of persons going to bed hungry and the number of persons suffering from poverty and destitution to half, by 2015. Priorities in development strategies and resource allocation decisions must therefore go to promoting equity in access to nutrition, healthcare, education, sanitation and livelihood opportunities.Inter-generational inequity
A third form of inequity relates to the harm the present generation inflicts on the well-being of the generations yet to be born. Such inter-generational inequity can do greater harm in population-rich countries like China, India and Bangladesh. The most serious among the different categories of inter-generational inequity is anthropogenically induced climate change. Climate change could result in adverse changes in temperature, precipitation, and sea level, leading to serious droughts, floods and coastal sea water inundation. Sea level rise could lead to the submergence of coastal areas, and islands like the Maldives. Other forms of environmental damage, such as loss of biodiversity and pollution of water, have equally serious repercussions.
Thus, inequity at birth, intra-generational inequity in adult life and inter-generational inequity pose a serious threat to sustainable human security and well-being. The poor nations and the poor in all nations will be the worst sufferers since they have limited coping capacity to face the challenges of global warming and environmental degradation. Both unsustainable lifestyles on the part of the rich, and unacceptable poverty on the part of large sections of the population, are threats to peace and security. Remarkable advances in many areas of technology like information communication technology (ICT) and eco-technology have opened up uncommon opportunities to usher in an era where there can be harmony between humankind and nature and also harmony among members of the human family. Let Asia, with a rich repository of traditional knowledge and modern science, show the way. Let the nucleus of the movement for harmony start with the partnership and fellowship promoted at this gathering by the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation.
(This is the text of the keynote address delivered by Professor M.S. Swaminathan in Manila on August 29 at an event held to mark the 50th anniversary of the Ramon Magsaysay Award Foundation. Dr. Swaminathan was himself the 1971 Magsaysay awardee for Community Leadership.)