Richard Verma’s Speech (4/24/2013) on SAJ

Richard Verma’s Speech (4/24/2013) on SAJ

Glad This Is the South Asia Journal

I’m so glad this is the “South Asia Journal…” I don’t know if that was a difficult decision, but I was President of the Indian American Bar Association, when we decided to change the name to the “South Asian Bar Association.”  And, I was surprised and frankly disappointed by a number of people who said we would lose our identity if we changed the name….that couldn’t have been more wrong….we picked up more lawyers, we picked up more enthusiasm, and we were more effective, acting as a unified group, drawing upon our common bonds, our historic connections, our cultures, and our traditions…that our so integrally related.


My Parents

I am shaped, of course, by the stories and struggles of my parents, who have defied every odd, and who have helped me take this broader view of South Asia.  My mother was born in what is today Pakistan…she was a product of the partition…as her and her family would resettle in Northern India shortly after 1947.  It was a violent and unsettled time.  My father was the only literate person in his family.  He would be imprisoned as a teenager for protesting British occupation.  My mother, this young girl from a village in Pakistan, would go on to get her master’s degree.  And my dad would get his PhD, and become the first person in his family who could read and write.  The only reason he is not here tonight is that he still teaches a class, at 81 years old, one night a week…and as much as he likes his son, he wasn’t going to miss his last class of the semester!
My dad, like other immigrants, left his wife and kids behind, to find a better opportunity, a better future.  He arrived in New York City in 1963 with $24 dollars that he had borrowed, and a bus ticket to Northern Iowa.  It was hard for him.  My mom and brothers and sisters would come over a few years later.  I still recall when I was young, seeing my mom in her sari waiting for the bus to go to work in 20 degree temperatures in blowing and drifting snow.  The times were hard.  We had no money.  The kids could be mean in school to this new immigrant family.  But they persevered.  They showed us what it meant to be strong, what it means to stay together, and confront challenges as a family, and they taught us to be proud of our roots.
My Experience With South Asia
I’ve tried to live up to the high standards they set…and have been fortunate to have a very American upbringing with strong South Asian values and traditions.  I served in the military, when there were very few people that looked like me in the Air Force; I started working on the Hill in 1988, when I could count on one hand the number of South Asians working in the House; and I decided to go to law school much to the chagrin of my parents, who were convinced I might change my mind and become a doctor, which was the ultimate achievement of South Asian success!
But I have also had the good fortune to work on South Asian matters for many years….i have spent time in Pakistan and worked very hard on the Pakistan aid package – the so-called Kerry, Lugar Berman aid bill which tripled the amount of civilian assistance into Pakistan.  I spent several weeks in Nepal working with the parliament there; when I worked for Senator Reid, I had the real pleasure of getting to know a large Bangladeshi community that had settled in Reno, Nevada…  I’ve worked extensively on Afghanistan for the past 11 years, since our troops have been on the ground there, and, of course, I have been able to work on matters pertaining to India, both as a lawyer, and as someone with deep family ties there.  I know I am leaving some countries out….but it’s just a sampling.
South Asia: Promise or Peril? 

For those of who work on South Asia, and care about the region, we often wonder, where is this region going –  is it a land of promise or is it a land of peril?  Will the great opportunities win out over the tremendous challenges?
I have seen the enormous promise of South Asia – its people, its innovations, its culture, exports, and great traditions.  Many of the trend lines coming from the region are quite good.  Extreme poverty is down 15% over the past 20 years; the proportion of poor is lower today in South Asia than at any time in the past 40 years.  Child malnutrition is down 20%.  Primary school enrollment is up 15%.  And, economic growth has averaged 6% per year for the past 20 years.  We would welcome such a growth rate here.  The region will soon be the most populous in the world; it has the world’s largest working-age population, and a quarter of the world’s middle-class consumers.  Unlike its Chinese neighbors to the East, the population is also relatively young; labor productivity in the region more than doubled between 1991 and 2011. And the region, despite the tensions, has incredible religious diversity.  There are nearly as many Muslims in India as there are in Pakistan.
But we also have to keep our eyes open to the very serious challenges that weigh down the region in too many ways, and which give rise to its very uncertain future.  Despite the economic growth, South Asia is still home to the world’s largest concentration of poor people — more than 500 million people live on less than $1.25 a day.  Child mortality is still too high.  Food and fuel are still too scarce, and too many still die from preventable diseases.  The climate and resource challenges are stark, which have given rise to a whole new set of tensions.  Severe droughts, variations in the monsoons, and shrinking Himalayan glaciers brought on by climate change have created a new regional flashpoint over access to clean water.  Furthermore, mass urbanization has created a new set of political, health and economic challenges…anyone who travels to the region sees the South Asian cities bursting at the seams, with the infrastructure barely keeping pace…these growth patterns are not sustainable.  Politically, corruption still threatens the basic democratic compact with too many, and gender inequality, and increasingly, gender-based violence has grown far too pervasive.
Not surprisingly, girls from the poorest households face the highest barriers to education; across South Asia women account for less than 20% of the workforce outside of agriculture, which forces them into the informal economy.  How can a region attain its full development potential when at least 50% of its population does not have access to the same education, the same professional opportunities or the same rights to social justice?  And, I haven’t even mentioned the nuclear weapons, which continue to be produced by both of the major South Asian powers.


The Way Forward

So, the challenges are steep…but I am an optimist.  Digging out of some of these holes will require strong leadership, deepened economic and security cooperation across the region, increased people to people ties to build the trust that governments cannot achieve, and a commitment from officials to keep South Asia at the forefront of the policy agenda.  And, that’s where your work, and the work of the South Asia Journal will become so important.
For anyone in the room that currently serves in government or has served, you know that there are real limitations to how fast government can move, how difficult it is to change course, to take on new issues, to solve the difficult and sometimes controversial issues.  But the South Asia Journal, and organizations like it here –and there — can play such an important role in driving the debate and keeping key issues alive.  And, I know you will continue to do that in the months and years ahead.  That much is clear from the first-rate products you have already produced in the short time you have been around.
But let me challenge you on two additional fronts, and suggest two additional areas of focus for the Journal.  First, don’t be afraid to be the voice for people who are not often heard.  Lost in the foreign policy and geopolitical discussions is the focus on ordinary people from the region, who have come to this country looking for a better life for their family.  According to 2010 census data, over 3.4 million South Asians live in the United States. The South Asian community as a whole grew 81% over the last decade. The growth rate for the South Asian population has exceeded that of the Asian American population as a whole, as well as that of the Hispanic American population.
We have become accustomed to seeing the strong academic performance of South Asian children, the relative higher incomes, and now, increasingly prominent role they play in society, government and politics.  Of all the immigrant groups, South Asians have on average more years of education; more high school graduates, and more college degrees, more professional positions….the numbers are even higher for the second generation.  Total household income has also been the highest of all the immigrant groups.
There is a presumption that all who come here are doctors, engineers, lawyers or scientists, but the population is far more diverse, and we cannot forget not all have made it, nor will they make it, and it is becoming increasingly difficult to live the American dream.  Upward mobility is becoming more difficult to achieve, integration and assimilation can be exceptionally difficult for recent immigrants, not to mention just meeting the monthly budget.  One out of five South Asians lack health insurance.  10% of Indian Americans live in poverty,15% for Pakistani Americans, and 20% for Bangladeshi Americans.  And subtle, and often not so subtle forms of discrimination, and outright targeting and profiling, are still all too commonplace.  A 2007 study of the New York City Schools found that 77% of Sikh children were harassed on a regular basis; and we will never forget the terrible hate crime and murder committed in the Sikh temple in Wisconsin; only last week in the height of the Boston tragedy, there was a rush to find certain ‘brown skinned attackers”, an incorrect profiling that was perpetuated by several major tv and newspaper media outlets.
It is in these moments that we have to be most vigilant, and our voices have to be heard.  We stand up for them not just because we have a connection to South Asia, we stand up for them because it is a very American thing to do…to fight for social justice….and for individual dignity.  It could be during a crisis, or during a policy debate on immigration or an economic fairness issue, a case of profiling or it could simply be a case of school bullying, let’s use the influence we have.  Sometimes because of our need to assimilate, we feel it is not our place to have our voices heard so loudly or prominently.  But we have assimilated and succeeded, and now it is our obligation to be more involved.  I know this organization can stand up for its diaspora communities in important ways.
Finally, I’d suggest that the Journal do more of what it has already done in its first 7 issues, and that is tell the stories of individuals in South Asia, and here in America…the stories of migration, the stories of conflict, of achievement over adversity, of bridging deep divisions.  The tendency, especially in foreign policy circles, is to focus on the geopolitical, on the state-level and strategic clashes that drive our news.  Too often, the stories of individuals get lost in this mix.  And, for some reason, South Asians, are somewhat reluctant to talk about themselves and their struggles and their successes.  I intend, for example, to try to better understand my parents and their parent’s stories…and one day, I will get those written and hopefully published.  Those of us in the second generation and future generations need this understanding of what came before us.  Bringing these stories to light – the stories of achievement and adversity – will positively impact the geopolitical discussion, and help bring us even closer together.  In the words of my dad, “we are all from the same place.”   It would be hard to find a better platform than the South Asia Journal for those stories to be written.

I want to thank you again for the invitation to be here with all of you.  I look forward to reading more of the South Asian Journal, and I congratulate you on this first inaugural gala.  And, I want to thank everyone who is here for their enormous contributions to the dialogue on South Asia.  We have a lot of work to do together, but I am confident for the future promise of South Asia.  Thank you very much.

Richard Verma

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