The SDSA survey has found that it is not terrorism but crime that is the greater source of insecurity for South Asians. Political borders have not succeeded in containing either crime or terrorism, and these doubled dangers translate into an incalculable menace.
Consider that more than 10 per cent of the global trade in human beings takes place in the subcontinent. The grubby underworld link that connects the brothels of Mumbai with those of Colombo, Dhaka, Kathmandu, Lahore and Thimphu displaces hapless women from one country to another with profitable impunity.
This crime is particularly lucrative because, unlike other contraband, people can be sold several times. In this process, it is not just capital and people but also bugs and viruses that are transported without scrutiny and documentation.
Already close to six million people are living with HIV/AIDS in South Asia and UNAIDS reports that women constitute over 35 per cent of new HIV infections. A thriving cross-border sex trade could contribute to a full-blown epidemic.
South Asia is also the main transit route for illegal drugs like heroin and hashish. While its countries have signed agreements for controlling both drug and human trafficking, political differences between them hinder effective cooperation. Meanwhile, drug abusers in the region now number in the millions and a significant portion of the multi-billion dollar global trade turnover is funnelled into arms smuggling and terrorist activities.
For instance, Dawood Ibrahim’s criminal crew, which controls most of the contraband and hawala transactions in South Asia, has financed terrorist acts such as the 1993 Mumbai bomb blasts. As its smuggling routes run through different parts of the subcontinent, the narco-terrorism nexus represented by this syndicate poses a security risk to the entire region.
Defence analyst Ajay Lele has noted that the D-company has increasingly been seeking political clout to safeguard its business interests by, for example, backing the Shahadat-Al-Hikma party in Bangladesh and the Lashkar-e-Toiba. In addition to creating havoc in Jammu and Kashmir, the latter is accused of attacking the Indian Parliament and fomenting the Shia-Sunni conflict in Pakistan.
Often it is the ethnic, religious and linguistic faultlines running through the subcontinent that mutate into violence. But abysmal rankings in the Human Development Index (look to the left) suggest that South Asia has not been blessed with good governance either. Widespread illiteracy, inequality and poverty render people even more vulnerable to crime and sectarian rhetoric.
Poignant evidence of crime targeting the weak was found when traffickers rushed in to prey on the children orphaned by the 2004 tsunami. Even in normal times, 60 per cent of South Asia’s human trafficking involves adolescent girls. Child recruits into the LTTE and Maoist cadres provide further instances of the exploitation of the weakest segments of society.
Regional harmony requires us to tackle social and security challenges together. SAARC leaders have committed to devising development strategies and also adopted a regional convention on suppressing terrorism. But only a spirit of solidarity can fulfil the promise of this collective framework.