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Poor by definition June 7, 2012

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Monika Barthwal-Datta

Security continues to be viewed in limited terms in the Indian subcontinent.

For hundreds of millions in the Indian subcontinent, daily life is a ruthless battle. It involves being assaulted brutally by insecurities arising from socio-economic, political, environmental and even military threats to their lives and livelihoods. Despite this, at the national level, the countries in the subcontinent remain stuck to a simplistic and narrow view of what security means, i.e. the safety of the state (or regime) from military threats.

It is a view which stands fundamentally challenged in the globalised, post-Cold War world. The case for a wider understanding of security is now well-established, and in many countries, regional institutions and international organisations, academic and policy debates are informed in this way.

For the subcontinent, the narrow approach to security is unhelpful in at least two ways. One, it makes it very difficult for a more people-oriented, holistic and inclusive understanding of security to emerge, despite it being highly relevant to the needs of its people. When thinking of security, policymakers continue to be driven by the limited, state-centric approach. Likewise, security analysts continue to look to the state when seeking expressions of insecurity, while ignoring other similar expressions at the sub-state level.

Two, it overlooks the importance of actors other than the state who are active in this wider security realm. It ignores their role as legitimate security practitioners, and the potential to learn from and build on their work from a policy perspective.

Broadening security in the subcontinent

The 1990s saw the international security debate expand radically. Concepts such as ‘human security’ and ‘non-traditional security’ became part of the discussions. By the early 2000’s, it was no longer considered illogical to argue for the meaning of security to go beyond state stability and regime survival, and refer also to the safety and well-being of individuals and communities from a range of threats. Yet in the subcontinent, these discussions were few and far between. This remains the case even today.

It is not surprising then, that there is very little by way of a solid academic or policy-oriented understanding of the issues which prevent people of the subcontinent from living lives free from fear and want – two essential components of security as enshrined in the UN Charter and highlighted in particular by human security proponents. Perhaps a little ironic, since the subcontinent is home to the world’s largest number of the poor and hungry. Already, it faces colossal resource constraints in the face of growing populations, diminishing arable land, increasing water scarcity and high vulnerability to climate change. The latter in particular poses a critical threat to agriculture, rural livelihoods and coastal urban population centres in the region. Socio-economic inequalities together with ethnic and religious cleavages threaten to add further complexity to these circumstances. Finally, these dynamics also impinge significantly on concerns around political instability and violence in a region where most countries have weak governance institutions, lacking adequate capacity and often riddled with corruption.

Non-state actors and security in the subcontinent

Opening up the study of security in the region to include these issue areas reveals that the state is not the only (and in some cases even the primary) security actor in the subcontinent. It helps unearth a previously unnoticed, sub-state layer of security governance and related practices led by non-state actors (NSAs). These include including non-governmental organisations (NGOs), civil society groups and networks, epistemic communities (i.e. knowledge-based communities of experts) and media organisations.

These NSAs are engaged in different security practices – such as identifying and ‘securitising’ threats to sub-state groups, working with local and national agencies to devise suitable policy responses, and at times even taking action in the absence of state capacity or political will, to provide preventative and mitigating measures to those perceived as threatened.

Human trafficking – a case study

Human trafficking is often cited as one of the fastest growing forms of Transnational Organised Crimes (TOCs) in the subcontinent. Around 150,000-200,000 people are trafficked there annually, and for various reasons – sex work, labour, forced marriages and organ trade. There are many things which make people vulnerable to trafficking and poverty is a key reason. Other factors include gender-based violence, unemployment, lack of education, corruption, political instability, conflict, and more.

For the counties of the subcontinent, human trafficking remains a law and order issue best dealt with under local jurisdiction. The main focus is on punishing the perpetrators and for government officials, and in general, national policies reflects the view that there is limited regional externality to phenomenon. They seem to ignore the fact that all these countries are either host, transit and/or recipient countries with respect to those being trafficked, and there is no harmonisation of legal frameworks in dealing with this regional phenomenon.

International actors (e.g. UNIFEM and USAID), regional actors (e.g. the South Asian Coalition on Child Servitude (SACCS), Action against Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation of Children (ATSEC), the Asian Development Bank (ADB) and the Asia Foundation), as well as other, grassroot organisations, have all argued that the phenomenon needs to be viewed through a rights based framework – one which places the victim of trafficking at the centre of its focus and emphasises on the protection, rehabilitation and welfare of the victim, as opposed to just the punishment of traffickers. The SAARC anti-trafficking convention, although a key development, makes little progress in this regard.

Evidence shows that in the absence of adequate responses from the states in the region, measures are being taken by a different group of actors. Networks of anti-trafficking NGOs in the region are actively working to prevent trafficking, care and support for trafficking victims, and also engaging in advocacy on the issue.

In Nepal, for example, NGOs such as Shakti Samuha and Maiti Nepal not only help intercept trafficking at border points and support rescues of trafficking victims, but also help facilitate their rehabilitation and reintegration into communities. This includes transfers to safe houses, training in livelihood skills, medical care, counselling and even legal assistance where victims are ready to pursue criminal proceedings against their perpetrators. These NGOs are also involved in community outreach programmes to spread awareness on the dangers of being trafficked. In the recent past (together with other such groups) they successfully lobbied the Nepalese government to make its anti-trafficking legislation more victim-oriented.

These NGOs are embedded within wider national, regional and global anti-trafficking networks. Also, they often work closely with their counterparts in other countries of the subcontinent to facilitate rescue and repatriation of victims to their home countries. For example, Asha Nepal (a partner organisation of Shakti Samuha) works closely with similar rescue and rehabilitation organisations in India in Mumbai, Pune, New Delhi and Kolkata.

State representatives and agencies in the subcontinent continue to view security in very limited terms. At the same time, the bulk of the academic literature on security in the subcontinent only deals with expressions of insecurity made by such actors.

What is lost consequently is the opportunity to identify, understand and address insecurities expressed by sub-state groups, particularly in relation to non-military threats. Also missed is the opportunity to unearth and explore a layer of security governance previously ignored, with respect to the work being done by NSAs in some of these issue areas. In losing these opportunities, the study and analysis of security in the subcontinent, and relevant policy-making in the region, remains all the poorer, at the cost of those who can least afford it.

Monika Barthwal-Datta is a research fellow at the Centre for International Security Studies (CISS), University of Sydney, and the author of Understanding Security Practices in South Asia: Securitization Theory and the Role of Non-State Actors (Abingdon: Routledge, 2012).

A version of this article was first published on Pragati National Interest, 16 May 2012.

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