South Asia

Tremendous internal and external changes will shape security and political stability in South Asia in the next five years as the planned drawdown of international forces in Afghanistan; the deepening relationship between the United States and India; China’s westward-facing development objectives under its One Belt, One Road initiative; and inroads by the Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) and other terrorist groups all have their impact. South Asia also will face continuing challenges from political turmoil—particularly Pakistan’s struggle to maintain stability—as well as violent extremism, sectarian divisions, governance shortfalls, terrorism, identity politics, mounting environmental concerns, weak health systems, gender inequality, and demographic pressures.

These factors almost certainly will prolong the delays of economic integration and political reforms that the region needs to capitalize on development gains of the past several decades.

  • Governments across the region will find it hard to meet growing public expectations, given the urgent environmental and urban stresses already under way. Creating conditions that would help more individual- and community-level initiatives to thrive and address corruption would probably encourage progress.
  • Geopolitically, the region’s greatest hope is India’s ability to use its economic and human potential to drive regional trade and development. At the same time, Afghanistan’s uncertain prospects, extremism and violence in Pakistan, and the ever-present risk of war between India and Pakistan probably represent the greatest challenge to unlocking the region’s potential.

Geopolitical Relevance of Region in Next Five Years: Competition. Despite persistent problems like violent extremism and tension between its two nuclear powers, India and Pakistan, the region’s global relevance is changing, as Iran opens up economically after sanctions relief and China turns its focus westward. India is also an increasingly important factor in the region as geopolitical forces begin to reshape its importance to Asia, and the United States and India will grow closer than ever in their history.

New Delhi will be a victim of its own success as India’s growing prosperity complicates its environmental challenges. For example, providing electricity to 300 million citizens who now lack it will substantially increase India’s carbon footprint and boost pollution if done with coal- or gas-fired plants. New Delhi will reinforce its cooperation in regional trade and infrastructure investment with Bangladesh, Burma, Iran, Nepal, and Sri Lanka. Such cooperation could encourage stability and prosperity across much of the region, particularly if India enlists the support of political parties in the region.

  • Insecurity on the Afghan-Pakistan border—political turmoil, resilient insurgencies, and poor border security—along with Afghanistan’s conflict and the presence of violent extremist groups will be the primary drivers of regional instability. More than 30 violent extremist groups threaten regional stability, and drugs will remain an important revenue source for nonstate actors, including jihadi groups, in Afghanistan. The threat of terrorism from groups such as Lashkar-e-Tayyiba, Tehrik-i-Taliban Pakistan, and al-Qa`ida and its affiliates—as well as ISIL expansion and sympathy for associated ideology—will remain key drivers of insecurity in the region.
  • Much of South Asia will see a massive increase in youth population, escalating demands for education and employment. According to one estimate, India alone will need to create as many as 10 million jobs per year in coming decades to accommodate people newly of working age in the labor force Insufficient opportunity as a result of inadequate resources, coupled with social discrimination, could contribute to the radicalization of a segment of the region’s youth. Additionally, widespread prenatal sex selection is helping to make the country’s youth cohort disproportionately male, with potential major consequences for social stability, as numerous social scientists emphasize the correlation between prospectless young men and violence.
  • Moreover, Pakistan, unable to match India’s economic prowess, will seek other methods to maintain even a semblance of balance. It will seek to maintain a diverse set of foreign partners, from which it can draw economic and security assistance, and to develop a credible nuclear deterrent by expanding its nuclear arsenal and delivery means, including “battlefield” nuclear weapons and sea-based options. In its efforts to curtail militancy, Islamabad will also face multiple internal security threats, as well as a gradual degradation of equipment used in these operations, declining financial resources, and a debate over changes needed to reduce the space for extremism. While violent extremism is unlikely to present an existential threat to Pakistan during this period, it will have negative implications for regional stability.

Other Considerations: Environment, Health, and Urbanization. South Asia’s poorly governed countries are ill prepared for the range of ongoing and near-term challenges that will result from continued urbanization. The region is increasingly urban, with a megacity developing that will stretch from New Delhi to Islamabad with only terrain—and political boundary-imposed breaks. The subcontinent may come to have three of the world’s 10 biggest cities and 10 of its top 50. Merely providing services for such burgeoning populations would be a major challenge for any country and may overwhelm resource strapped governments in South Asia, but urban areas of this size also create new social, political, environmental, and health vulnerabilities, for instance creating openings for new political movements and encouraging support for religious organizations as disparate groups come into contact,.

  • Pollution almost inevitably increases with urbanization at South Asia’s stage of development, creating atmospheric conditions that damage human health and crops and add to the economic costs of city living. South Asia already has 15 of the world’s 25 most polluted cities, and more than 20 cities in India alone have air quality worse than Beijing’s. Decisions regarding waste management will also significantly affect the quality of urban life; dense populations living in close proximity with limited services can intensify health challenges and extend the spread of infectious diseases.
  • Although megacities often contribute to national economic growth, they also spawn sharp contrasts between rich and poor and facilitate the forging of new identities, ideologies, and movements. South Asia’s cities are home to the largest slums in the world, and growing awareness of the economic inequality they exemplify could lead to social unrest. As migrants from poorer regions move to areas with more opportunities, competition for education, employment, housing, or resources may stoke existing ethnic hatred, as has been the case in parts of India.
  • Newly urbanized populations tend to be more religious, as well. In Pakistan and Bangladesh, the pressures of urban life may bolster political Islamic movements: the oldest and most deeply rooted Islamist group in both nations. Jamaat-e Islami, is a largely urban organization. Hindutva, or Hindu nationalism, is likewise a predominantly urban phenomenon in India: the most radical Hindutva political party, Shiv Sena, has governed India’s commercial center Mumbai for much of the past four decades. India is projected to surpass Indonesia as having the world’s largest Muslim population in 2050, raising questions about stability in the face of sectarian mistrust. The perceived threat of terrorism and the idea that Hindus are losing their identity in their homeland have contributed to the growing support for Hindutva, sometimes with violent manifestations and terrorism. India’s largest political party, the Bharatiya Janata Party, increasingly is leading the government to incorporate Hindutva into policy, sparking increased tension in the current sizable Muslim minority as well as with Muslim-majority Pakistan and Bangladesh.

Climate change almost certainly will affect South Asia in the form of higher temperatures that damage human health and food security. Increased greenhouse gas concentrations and localized aerosol pollution both have the capacity to alter patterns of precipitation. Almost half the world's population lives in areas affected by South Asia’s monsoons, and even slight deviations from normal in the timing and intensity of monsoons can have major repercussions for regional agriculture. Agricultural production, water availability, and hydroelectric power generation and grid stability would be substantially reduced by delayed monsoon onset. Conversely, increases in precipitation over some areas, including Bangladesh, could exacerbate flooding and have consequences for emigration.

  • Climate change could lead to a faster-than-expected melting of the glaciers in the Pamir Knot, which feed the northern rivers of Pakistan and India. Tropical storm surges on top of even a modest sea level rise could reduce the already-sparse landmass of Bangladesh, spoiling freshwater resources and pushing people into India and Burma, exacerbating ethnic and regional conflicts.
  • India and Pakistan are also vulnerable to a variety of extreme weather events. Major examples include massive floods that devastated Pakistan in 2010, unpredictable monsoons that decreased food security, and heatwaves in 2015 that killed over 1,000 in Pakistan and 2,500 in India. A shift in the monsoon patterns that amplified those seen in recent years—when “100 year floods” have been increasingly frequent—could overwhelm Pakistan’s dams, already straining to contain floodwaters from deforested mountains and ravines. Meanwhile, public awareness of the long term risks of sea-level rise will grow as the Maldives and other Pacific Islands gradually disappear.
  • Changing precipitation patterns could alter water ecosystems in ways that foster spikes in dangerous waterborne or water-linked illnesses such as malaria, cholera, and polio. Storm surges and flooding can expose millions to sewage-and otherwise contaminated waters and myriad diseases, making investments in more modern and resilient water systems vital for public health and safety.
Infographic - India's Population Projection of 1,585,350,000 in 2035

aEstimates for religious affiliation are based on data from the World Religion Database and are rounded to the nearest one-tenth of a percent.

bTotal Fertility Rate is the projected average number of children born to a woman if she lives to the end of her childbearing years.

Note: Demographic data is presented for countries estimated to have the largest population in each region in 2035.