Mapping the Human Development Index (HDI) in Greater South Asia

(Note: Today’s scheduled post on language and nationalism needs more work and therefore its publication will be delayed).

On a map of the World Bank’s Human Development Index divided into the standard categories, South Asia (India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, and Sri Lanka*) is depicted as a land of “medium” development, better than central and north-central Africa, but worse than most of the rest of the world. Sri Lanka is an exception, falling instead into the “high development” category. This data, however, was collected before Sri Lanka’s recent economic melt-down. Presumably its HDI figure will decline.

When South Asia’s HDI rankings are broken down into finer categories and mapped in their regional context (one covering Burma and Afghanistan as well as portions of neighboring countries), several spatial patterns are evident. Here India, Bangladesh, and Nepal appear at a medium developmental level, and are flanked on the east and northwest by countries of lower ranking (Burma [Myanmar] and Pakistan & Afghanistan respectively). Bracketing “Greater South Asia” as a whole, one finds countries with much higher HDI levels (China, Iran, and Thailand).

These patterns vanish, however, when the larger countries of the region are broken down into their first-order administrative divisions (states, provinces, regions, etc. **). On this map, the borders between countries are hard to distinguish, and sometimes disappear altogether. China may have a much higher HDI level than India, but many Indian states post higher figures than the neighboring Chinese region of Tibet.

The rest of this post looks at parts of this Greater South Asia that have low HDI figures relative to the rest of the region. Later posts will examine areas with relatively high HDI, as well as regional developmental discrepancies.

South Asia’s most heavily populated area, India’s central Ganges Valley, is characterized low HDI. This region, consisting of the states of Uttar Pradesh and Bihar, is home to some 312 million people; it would be the world’s fourth most populous country if it were independent. The central Ganges Valley is a generally flat area with fertile soils and plentiful water (especially in the east). It is also the historical heartland of South Asia civilization. Its economic and social development, however, lags behind the rest of the country. Not coincidentally, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh are also known for their high levels of corruption and their caste and religious tensions.

To the south of Bihar is the Indian state of Jharkhand, also characterized by low levels of social development. Ironically, it has India’s richest mineral deposits (especially coal) and has therefore been described as an example of the “resource curse.” Most of Jharkhand is a hilly plateau, and it has a large number of adivasis (“tribal people”). It has also been the site of numerous Maoist (Naxalite) attacks on governmental institutions.



Lower levels of human development are encountered in South Asia’s northwestern fringe. Both the western and eastern parts of Afghanistan, encompassing areas of both Pashtun and Tajik ethnicity, post very low HDI figures. Significantly higher levels are found in central Afghanistan, especially in and around Kabul. Across the country, HDI levels showed significant increases in the first two decades of the century. It will be interesting to see how they change with the Taliban back in power. Preliminary indications are not positive.

Very low levels of human development are also found in Pakistan’s Balochistan region, the country’ largest and most mineral-rich province. Not surprisingly, the ethnically distinct people of this area (mostly Baloch and Brahui) have been in periodic rebellion for decades. Baloch insurgents have recently launched attacks on Chinese-financed infrastructural projects in their region, which they see as benefitting the rest of Pakistan rather than themselves. While Balochistan as a whole posts an HDI figure of only .48, some of its internal districts have much lower numbers still. According to one source, Awaran, known as Pakistan’s “oasis of dates,” has a shockingly low HDI figure of only .17 (2017 data). Outside of Balochistan, the same data source claims that Pakistan’s former FATA region (“Federally Administered Tribal Areas”) had a similarly miserable figure of .22 in 2017. In 2018, this previously largely unadministered region of Pashtun ethnicity was merged with the neighboring state of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. It still has one of the world’s lowest levels of female literacy. (Other sources give the dismantled FATA a substantially higher HDI figure of .46 [in 2019].)

Iran’s neighboring province of Sistan and Baluchestan is similar to Pakistan’s Balochistan in regard to its ethnic make-up and physical geography. Its HDI figure, .67, is, however, significantly higher. But Sistan and Baluchestan does have Iran’s lowest HDI figure, and by a sizable margin. It has also been the site of prolonged ethnic unrest.

Burma (Myanmar), although not conventionally classified as part of South Asia, also deserves a closer look. The country as a whole has a relatively low HDI figure despite its abundant resources and historical legacy of economic and social development (the noted historian Victor Lieberman thinks that Burma may have had the world’s highest level of literacy in the 1700s.) Intriguingly, Burma’s areas of particularly low development are not found in its marginalized, non-Burman, “tribal,” upland peripheries (more on this in the next most). The country’s profound “lowland/highland” and “Burman/ethnic minority” cleavages are not visible on this map.


Within Burma, a particularly low level of development is found in coastal Rakhine state. Known historically as Arakan, this area long formed an independent kingdom. The Arakanese people speak a language (dialect?) that is very closely related to Burmese. And like the Burmese-speaking ethnic Burmans, most of them follow Theravada Buddhism. Their lands have rich agricultural, marine, and forestry resources. But owing in part to its low levels of development, Rakhine is a restive region. The nationalist Arakan Liberation Army has recently ramped up its attacks on the Burmese state. The Arakan Liberation Army is also hostile toward the Muslim Rohingya minority, which until recently lived in the northern part of the region (vast numbers of Rohingya have been violently expelled from Burma).

Burma’s eastern Shan state posts an HDI figure lower than that of Rakhine, coming in at just over .5. The Shan state covers an upland plateau with some rugged topography and remote locales. It is not, however, a “tribal” area in general. The Shan themselves are a Tai-speaking people who also practice Theravada Buddhism. They were historically organized into small but military potent principalities. In the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, Burma and Siam (which became Thailand) competed over gaining control of this sizable area, with Burma eventually coming out on top. In the late twentieth century, it became a focal point of the narcotics trade. For a time, the insurgent Shan State enjoyed effective independence. In the late 1900s, however, the Burmese government defeated the Shan military, made possible by its alliance with the drug-running United Wa State Army. (The Wa are a “tribal’ people living in the northern part of Shan state.). The entire region is still noted for its narcotics trade and ethnic conflicts.

*The Maldives, another South Asian country, is excluded here due to its very small population. Like Sri Lanka, it has a relatively high level of human development (HDI of .74).

** The provinces of Afghanistan have been amalgamated into larger informal regions by the data source used here.

Mapping the Human Development Index (HDI) in Greater South Asia Read More »

Pakistan’s Fatal Floods in Google Earth

“This disaster is worse than the tsunami, the 2005 Pakistan earthquake and the Haiti earthquake,” commented Maurizio Giuliano, a spokesperson for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UNOCHA). (Source)

The Indus River as of 8-21-10 via NASA/MODIS

More than 20,000,000 have been displaced, more than have 1500 perished, as the worst Monsoons in Pakistan’s 65 year history as a modern state have inundated the country with record breaking floods. At least 6 six million people are now in immediate need of aid; threatened by disease, disenfranchisement, and dislocation. Starvation looms as600,000 tons of wheat have been lost, along with whole villages’ entire means of sustenance.

The city of Muzzafargarh is a microcosm for the entire disaster. Sitting on the banks of both the Chenab and Indus rivers, the city was devastated when Monsoons caused the Indus to flood and change its course through the center of town. More than 90,000 people were evacuated from the city to 49 camps, without any guarantee of compensation or investigation of the cause of the floods, as pointed out by respected NGO OxFam International.

The combination of climate and chance spelled doom for cities like Muzzafargarh. The summer’s monsoons were fed by record sea-surface temperatures, which enabled even stronger monsoons. Combine this with excess glacial melt due to global warming, and the result is far too much stress on the Indus River’s system of canals, floodgates, dams, and barrages, all of which make up the world’s largest irrigation network.

Partner these climate factors with a network of neglected and poorly conceived dams and you have a disaster of a colossal scale. It appears that the critical point in the flooding across Waziristan and Punjab was the flooding of the Taunsa Barrage, which allowed the Indus to cut a new course across Central Pakistan.

You can add another dimension to your understanding of the Pakistani floods, by viewing the region inGoogle Earth. As a companion to this post, please download this google earth file.

Included in the post are satellite overlays from MODIS/NASA, marking the Indus’ change in course throughout August, as well as dramatic imagery of the monsoon storm clouds, the major barrages of the Indus river, and hundreds of user uploaded pictures of life in rural Pakistan.

If that’s not enough, make sure to take a look at this NASA image, to see exactly what it looks like when the Indus changes course through a village.The floods did not discriminate between Northern and Souther Pakistan. The areas of Kyhber Pakhtunkhwa, Punjab, Sindh, Swat, and Balochistan were all severely affected by the flooding, leaving the entire country in turmoil.

A number of human rights issues are sprouting up around the floods. NGO workers, journalists, and reporters have been denied access to relief camps. Minority Ahmaddiyas have been denied rescue, or even barred from camps. Outreach and relief efforts are still inadequate: more than half a million families are without shelter, while only 98,000 have received tents.

Meanwhile, the global community has responded sluggishly, pledging more than 800 Million Dollars in International Aid, with only 36% donated. America, Pakistan’s military ally is the primary donor, followed by a team of UN-member states.

The World Bank recently extended Pakistan a 900 million dollar loan, but it’s hard to be optimistic they’ll ever see that money again, given the Pakistani government’s demonstrably weak ability to manage the country. These floods present a major challenge in which Pakistan needs to prove itself a functional state for its own survival’s sake.

The world must heed its attention, oversight and will towards Pakistan, a state in great need, regardless of political situation. As if half a decade of drone attacks needed to be compounded by a once in a century environmental disaster. Even nuclear-rival India has donated to the relief effort. You should as well.

(image via NOAA)

A Historic July in Sea Surface Temperature Anomalies is thought to be a contributor to record flooding in Pakistan. Part of a disturbing trend likely to continue with Global Warming.
A barrage in Pakistan during more peaceful times.

Pakistan’s Fatal Floods in Google Earth Read More »

Pashtun Shiites

Today’s New York Times includes three important articles pertaining to Sunni/Shiite tensions. Two of these are all-too-typical reports of terrorist attacks on Shia pilgrims by Sunni extremists, one in Karachi, Pakistan, the other in Iraq. The third article, on new leadership emerging among the Pakistani Taliban, is much less conventional (“With Taliban Leader Reported Dead, New Pakistani Figure Emerges”). According to the article, the local Taliban center has been relocated to Orakzai, one of the agencies of Pakistan Federally Administered Tribal Areas (which are not “federally administered,” if administered at all). The article mentions the fact that Orakzai has a Shiite minority, and that Taliban militants treat Shiites with particular brutality. What the article does not mention is the fact that in neighboring Kurram Valley Agency, Shiism is much more prevalent, being the dominant faith of the Turi tribe. Not surprisingly, the Turi have been struggling against the Taliban. As the Wikipedia reports, “On August 31, 2008 tribesmen mostly Turis dislodged Taliban from nearly 200 villages … [the] Taliban headquarters at Bagzai fell to the tribesmen killing as many as 95 militants.” (

The Pashtun Shiites have received little notice in the global media, but they are an important element of a very complex war.

Pashtun Shiites Read More »

The Northern Areas Become Gilgit-Baltistan

Divided Kashmir

The former princely state of Kashmir is one of the world’s most contested territories (see map). During the British colonial period, Kashmir was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja (under British “advisement”) even though its population was (and is) mostly Muslim. The political partition of British India into the independent states of India and Pakistan in 1947 saw the partitioning of Kashmir as well, with India gaining control over the core areas and Pakistan gaining power over the north and far west. In 1962, China grabbed parts of the far north after defeating India in a short war.

Pakistan divided its portion of Kashmir into two zones: Azad Kashmir (“free Kashmir”) in the west, and the Northern Areas. The Northern Areas were originally a non-self-governing area under Pakistani control, and have generally not been regarded by the international community as a part of Pakistan proper. India, for its part, has maintained that all of the former princely state of Kashmir is rightfully Indian territory.

This situation changed somewhat in August 2009, when Pakistan renamed the Northern Areas Gilgit-Baltistan and allowed the election of a local legislative assembly. A month later, Pakistan signed an agreement with China for the building of a massive dam and hydro-electrical facility in the area.

Indian authorities were further angered in December 2009 when the region’s newly elected chief minister declared that Gilgit-Baltistan was now Pakistan’s fifth province, and that it had “no connection to Kashmir.” An Indian spokesman retorted that “The entire state of Jammu and Kashmir is an integral part of India by virtue of its accession to India in 1947. Any action to alter the status of any part of the territory under the illegal occupation of Pakistan has no legal basis, and is completely unacceptable.” A Pakistani official then replied that Gilgit-Baltistan merely enjoys a “special status,” as its legislative assembly cannot pass laws. Gilgit-Baltistan is now best regarded as a de facto but not a de jure province of Pakistan.

Unfortunately, Gilgit-Baltistan has recently witnessed an upsurge of sectarian violence between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Sunni stalwarts, who wanted the area to merge with Azad Kashmir, were not happy when the Shia-majority region was awarded a province-like status. According to journalist B. Raman, Pakistan’s powerful “Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had over the past years encouraged and helped Sunni extremists organizations … to set up a presence in the Gilgit area.” (

Whatever its geopolitical status and religious tensions, Gilgit-Baltistan has made great educational strides in recent years. This extremely rugged, remote region had negligible levels of literacy thirty years ago. In 1998, adult literacy had reached 38 percent, and by 2006 it had risen to 53 percent. In many areas, most boys and girls now attend school, often learning their lessons in English. Most observers credit the gains largely to the Geneva-based Aga Khan Foundation. Many residents of Gilgit-Baltistan are Ismaili Muslims, members of a highly cosmopolitan and education-oriented sect of Shia Islam that is headed by the Aga Khan. Also significant are the philanthropic efforts of U.S. author and mountaineer Greg Mortenson, author of the acclaimed book Three Cups of Tea. The region also supports a high-quality English language news site, the Dardistan Times ( (“Dardistan” is itself an interesting geographical appellation, but that is a topic for a later post.)

Selected Sources:


The Northern Areas Become Gilgit-Baltistan Read More »