by Malik Moin Abbas
Not just the states, but South Asia as a region is facing an existential crisis. The urgency of these threats is underplayed by the gradual nature of their onset. Leaving them unresolved entails doom yet little urgency is observed in tackling them. There is a need for a new language which communicates the urgency of a crisis which is slow but sure in its lethality.
The Language for Crises
“Crisis” as a word has witnessed such levels of repetition that its usage has lost the kind of intended effect these days. Notwithstanding the fair use of this term, the whole point of deploying such vocabulary is to grab attention. Yet, it has a few problems: for one, we are desensitized to the repetitive use of this technique. After a point, people simply do not care. Indifference is the enemy of awareness and–consequently–action. Additionally, it does not tell us much. How much can a single word tell us about the important difference between headlines like Climate Crisis and Crisis of Confidence? One solution is to use language which engages with the daily life of the reader. After all, we only care about any crisis when it tangibly affects us.
The multitude of crises which have the potential to devastate the South Asian region ought to be explained in these terms. Instead of statistics and data points, our grim imagination serves us better. After all, the nature of this series of impending crises needs attention and action. Fantastical instead of rational might just be the need of the hour which brings us to the South Asian crises.
Not all Crises are the same
“Indian and Pakistani Cities on Nuclear Alert”.
“Indian and Pakistani Cities suffering from unprecedented water scarcity and air pollution”
Without a doubt, the former line grabbed our attention and sparked our imaginations. It might have even made us think of contingencies. The latter inspires no such fear as it is a repeated feature of our news cycle for the past many decades. Yet, the former has not happened till now and the chances of it happening in the future are also pretty slim. The latter, in contrast, is an endemic recurrence. It’s a well-established reality of South Asian cities. It’s the reason for countless, oft-forgotten, deaths every year. Yet, a stark difference exists. It is familiar and slow. The forgotten death toll is accumulative and not exponential. Therein lies the problem.
Besides their slow onset, crises that are currently engulfing the region are discriminatory as well. Their effects are not immediately felt except by the most vulnerable. Climate exodus, food insecurity and reducing livelihood prospects are worries of the future for some and immediate realities for others. Class divisions often act as a deterrent in creating solidarities between the affected and the not-yet affected. There’s a reason that rural distress and farmer agitations do not find much resonance in urban centers of India. Even the air and water woes are mostly a horrendous reality for the unaccounted millions at the bottom. In such conditions, a crisis will mean different things to different groups. We can’t afford to wait for these crises to hit the affluent classes. Perhaps a better narration of the stakes involved, a polemical telling of the facts in the language which the yet-to-be affected understand. Let’s start here with an attempt to use the current trends and foretell some of the inevitable outcomes with a creative flourish. It can be in the form of futuristic headlines, imagined narrations by the affected people and expositional communication intercepts.
Food Insecurity: (The Daily News, May 2040)
‘Ravikant (name changed) heads to his plush apartment in Vasant Kunj. The disappointment on his face is telling. “Those people were charging thrice for a dozen protein pills. Even my contacts were of no use”, he said while unlacing his now worn-out shoes. He never felt the need to buy new ones as the need to venture out didn’t arise until recently. “It was all so good. We ordered everything from home: food, medicine, lithium batteries. Shoes were passe, and who’d like to go out in such blistering heat and smog when we could live well in our homes. It’s dangerous”. But that era is long gone. Ravikant, who had not seen an underfed body in his life, had to venture through a pile of them to access the underground facility where the scarce protein pills are now sold in black. “It was awful”, he said, his hands holding up a dusty face.
Mrs Ravikant (name changed) was quite worried about her husband returning from that area. “Our house help used to live near that area. Considering how desperate she was, I wonder what others might be facing”, she said while pointing to the now-repaired metal shelves where nutrition pills are kept. “We had to let her go. I had no news of her whereabouts after that illegal basti was bulldozed by the Urban Wellness and Beautification Authority”.
While demolitions of such places are a norm, this one was for a different reason. The plush colony nearby employed people from the basti. After months of asking for the promised nutritional supplements, the demand was rejected. Retaliation occurred in the form of a mass attack on the colony. The ensuing violence resulted in the deaths of two colony dwellers, both trustees of the colony. Infrastructure worth 20 crore rupees was also destroyed and 3 guards suffered grave injuries. About a dozen raiders were shot dead by the security. The demolition of the basti the next morning was inevitable. The presence of cheerleading newscasters made sure that the message was broadcasted for all to see.
Shrinking Job Opportunities: (July 2032)
A Career Plan summary sent by the top counseling agency to the families selected for the Program.
We are delighted to inform you that your child has been selected for our Centurion Career Programme. She is one of just 200 students whom we will be grooming to become ready for a life full of opportunities by 2047. That’s right, your daughter will be college ready on the 100th anniversary of our Independence. This selection was made after a thorough assessment of your one-year-old daughter’s genetics and health metrics. We found her to be biologically at an advantage and aim to build upon it. Before we continue, let’s make a few things clear.
● We’re building your child for an uncertain era. Job security was done and dusted as a concept way back in the 2020s. It’s all about freelancing and contract hiring now. And the market out there is ruthless. Therefore, your child will need a multidimensional personality to fit into any job that comes by. Thus, you should make sure to minimize any unproductive time spent with your child and instead, let us focus on her neural and physical development. All activities which enhance her productive potential have to be followed at all costs. No more unnecessary playtime and naps.
● You’re blessed to have been selected for this programme. As we write, about 99.99 % of the families out there are not enrolled in such prestigious programmes. They face the shortfall of nutrition, skills upgradation and financial cushioning to see them through such a rigorous life ahead. However, that means that the selected pool is extremely competitive and we would like to see you doing your best. To that end, we will monitor the daily activities of your child till she’s ready for work. This means that activities like her food consumption, exercise routine and study sessions will be regulated.
● A minimum 2-year work experience is mandatory for anyone above the age of 14 applying to an entry-level job. Therefore, we shall arrange a range of internships and voluntary work for her before she turns 14. These will be unpaid but that will signal drive and a sense of initiative on her part. This will eventually aid her in getting her first of the many jobs.
● We must remind you of the stakes involved. If she doesn’t manage to go through with the program, her life will be like the rest of the less-endowed youth. That entails working in harsh conditions, no premium health subscriptions and no skill badges. As you would’ve witnessed with the recently failed freelancer association strike, such people are easily replaced by the MegaCorps or they get recruited for government posts on 2-3 year contracts. Going through with this program is a necessity.
Climate Exodus: (August 2047)
“Diary entry number 151
In a fortnight, it’ll be a century since the formerly sovereign states of India and Pakistan became independent from the British. It would have been a joyous occasion had the soil of Punjab and Bengal been soaked with the blood of a million souls. Hearts clouded with hate smothered countless lives and people still moved on. The memory of the partition and the ensuing migrations kept burning in both nations. The Bengalis witnessed another mass displacement in ‘71. But people still moved on. Both my grandfather and great-grandfather were victims of these imposed migrations. My own life in Chittagong was as comfortable as my South Asian counterparts. With a career set in research, the future was what I had in mind, if not for the rising sea.
Nowadays, it’s tough. Life as a relief worker in refugee camps around Dhaka hasn’t been easy. I try my best to keep up with the needs of the work yet the enormity of the suffering has dented my will. It’s 2047, but it could easily be 1947 or 1971. Throngs of affected communities rushing inland to find a safer place, aid agencies getting overwhelmed, and the State disappearing from people’s lives. A rising Bay of Bengal along with roaring Bhramputa and Ganges rivers destroyed inland basins and submerged the coastal areas.
This migration was just the latest–and the biggest– of the many which happened over the last decade and a half. The families of my own friends left about 5 years ago. We were delayed because grandfather didn’t want to relive his childhood. He was lucky enough to pass away before the journey. Rations have become scarce, even for aid workers. While the Bengali lands were long wrecked by catastrophic floods and droughts, it doesn’t help that the once fertile fields of Punjab have turned into barren wastelands. The food supply is never enough for any family in this camp or anywhere. People have nowhere to go except inwards and hostility is an ever-present fear.
Future is a senseless concept at this time. Career, ambitions, prospects, all such words take a backseat in your mind. Survival is the only concern. My biggest realization was about the length of this crisis. I was just the latest victim. The older migrants actually head the relief teams, being painfully aware of the tribulations ahead. I will finish my work for today and maybe dream of a future in my sleep. That’s the only place I can still look for it.
Malik Moin Abbas is a Master’s in Liberal Studies (IR) student at Ashoka University.
Image Source: Waterlogged street after monsoon rainfall in Assam, India. Photo: Talukdar David / Shutterstock.com <https://blogs.worldbank.org/endpovertyinsouthasia/south-asia-cooperates-fight-climate-threats-and-disasters>