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Why Blindly Following Western Economic Policies Won’t Work For The East

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By Deepanshu Mohan:

Kautilya and Adam SmithWhen ancient Greece fell into decline and Europe entered the Dark Ages, mathematical progress became the realm of the genius of the East. Despite developing independently of Chinese (and probably also of Babylonian) influences, some very advanced mathematical discoveries were made during the nascent times in medieval India. From the application of the zero, to the understandings of revolutionary new concepts of infinity and negative numbers – all ushered in an eastern age of mathematical and scientific enlightenment to the forefront (refer to the works of Indian Mathematicians like Madhava, Brahmagupta) long before Colonialism emerged. Rivers of ink have been spilt studying the influence of scientific thoughts that originated from the East to influence the West in ancient times.

The pursuit of a Western economy’s path to prosperity since medieval times has been dependent on the ability of the state in executing the ideas designed and originated in the works of distinguished scientists, mathematicians, and those who studied society. Germany had scholars like Carl Friedrich Gauss, Wilhelm von Leibniz and Max Planck; France had Marquis de Condorcet and Rene Descartes while United Kingdom had Charles Darwin, Issac Newton and Adam Smith to name a few. All these names were seminal in their country’s pursuit of higher economic, technological growth at a time when countries like Germany, France and UK emerged as factories of the modern world.

Unlike the West, the East today witnesses a growing void in the acknowledgement and application of ideas and concepts put forth by our thinkers and scholars; a void often reflected in the views of our modern political class, policymakers, judges and technocrats. Our views on economic justice are still driven by the concept of “what is just” and “fair” under a neo-Rawlsian umbrella which is more institutional in its constitution and vision. What remains lacking in the views of such policymakers, political class, judges and technocrats is the understanding of an instrumental, endogenous process that is germane to the plurality of our own communities and not something which is shaped entirely by a homogenous Western thinking.

As Amartya Sen aptly puts it in his book, The Idea of Justice, “in the inclusive perspective of nyaya, we can never handover the task of justice to some niti of social institutions and social rules that we see as exactly right, and then rest there, to free ourselves from further social assessment.” In the same way, the concept of economic development in totality must encompass a process of social realisation, integrating collective behavioural and social choice actions.

The Missing Indian Idea Of Developmental Growth

In India’s own economic policy making approach, we observe an over-reliance on the theoretical concepts of neo-liberal economics, a framework which saw its emergence in the US and Europe during the late 1950s. India’s current push for driving Foreign Direct Investment (FDI) as a source of physical capital to increase production for economic growth via its Make in India program can also be seen as a neo-liberal method that excludes the scope and importance on pushing for domestic investment and human capital in its model.

A paper written a few years ago by Indira Hirway, provides useful evidence on how, in spite of the adoption of pro-market policies in most of the South Asian countries, the level of income inequalities continued to widen. Out of the fourteen Asian countries for which sufficient data is available, inequality has increased in eleven countries vis-à-vis – Sri Lanka, China, Cambodia, India, Indonesia and Nepal (to name a few). Malaysia and Thailand were the only two countries where inequalities decreased. In the case of India, the Gini coefficient (a useful parameter for measuring income inequality) has increased from 0.44 to 0.47 during the last decade. While functional variables of a neo-liberal production function may have a useful bearing for increasing a developing economy like India’s productive capacities through capital investment; the mistake, often committed by our policymakers is to treat this approach of growth as an inclusive one.

The issue with India’s path to economic development has been with the implementation of Track II reforms where, in spite of higher and sustained economic growth levels since the early 2000s, the level of public spending on education and healthcare has remained drastically low (less than 3% and 2% of the GDP respectively till now). This has resulted in the accumulation of economic wealth in limited geographical city centres where economic prosperity is enjoyed by the few who directly accrue the benefits, segregating those from lower classes of income as the others who ultimately becoming entirely dependent on the government. Upward income mobility within these lower income classes remains unaddressed owing to a lack of access to good quality education, primary health care and productive employable opportunities for livelihood.

One of the other possible explanation for the short-sightedness in economic approach of a developing state like India, can be associated with the existing nature of our political system. A democratic system warrants political parties to achieve quick results and implement policies with short-term implications that allow them to score points in the next election cycle; while ignoring the long-term economic costs of such policies that are usually attached with short-term benefits.

The ad hoc policy decision of the nationalisation of all large banks in India in 1969 can be cited as one such example that resulted in long-term economic costs. The returns associated with social investments in skill development, primary education and healthcare facilities are long term (in the form of human capital development) and are part of a macro strategy for improving the productivity of workers and for enhancing aggregate effective demand in the economy. In this effect, the evidence on sustained economic development, in the recent past, is skewed more towards state led authoritative political regimes such as South Korea, Singapore, Mainland China etc.economic warfare

An Alternative: Social Choice Theories & Collective Action

In welfare economics, utilitarianism emerged as the official theory of studying the overall welfare of given societies in an economy (with contributions from Jeremy Bentham, John Stuart Mill, Pigou etc.). Our policy framework needs to be assessed in light of a question raised by the title of a famous essay by Richard Easterlin, “Will raising the income of all increase the happiness of all?” Putting happiness as a self-evident fact at the center of a utilitarian, totalistic approach is a prescription offered by many economists including Amartya Sen himself (refer to his works on Happiness, Well Being & Human Capabilities reflected in the book on Collective Choice and Social Welfare).

It would be pertinent to acknowledge the work put forth by some of the early social choice theorists who focused on the development of a framework for rational and democratic decisions for a group, paying attention to the preferences and interests of all its members. (Refer to Kenneth Arrow’s work on the impossibility theorem in his book on Social Choice and Individual Values).

The social choice theoretical applications are particularly useful in indigenizing self-assessing developmental process within pluralistic societies; away from the transcendental thinking of an ideal, uniform process of economic development usually projected as a ‘one size fits all’ (similar to the neo-liberal framework or the neo-Rawlsian idea of justice as fairness). The social choice theoretical framework is not a single theory, but a cluster of models and results concerning the aggregation of individual inputs (e.g., votes, preferences, judgments, welfare) into collective outputs (e.g., collective decisions, preferences, judgments, welfare). Information on interpersonal comparisons of well-being and relative advantages turns out to be particularly crucial in the resolution of an inclusive, long-term process of economic development.

There is a strong need for the Indian state, particularly the policymakers to acknowledge the role and importance of social choice theories that allow the emergence of complete symbiosis between the process of institutional reforms along with behavioural changes. As a useful example cited by Sen in his work on economic justice, mentions Condorcet’s (a French philosopher and mathematician) emphasis on the importance of women’s education in medieval France as a need for institutional reforms in securing such a change; a change that is realized by a larger effort to recognize the need for women’s voices in public affairs. Condorcet’s views here reflect the symbiosis needed between the process of reforming institutions that are driven by the collective needs of a society; in the above case, acknowledging more participation of women over time in the public policy decision-making framework.

In India and across the developing world, a fresh look in our public policy framework is required, that, at a micro level is institutionally designed combining elements from both Kautilya’s views on Indian political economy (in Arthashatra, where he acknowledged the role of institutions in planning and directing efficient economic performance, including the imposition of restrictions and prohibitions to promote good conduct at a society level) and Ashoka’s views on advancing the welfare and freedom of people in general (his optimistic views were based on the belief of making more people behave better by promoting self-awareness and persuading them to reflect more) .

At a macroeconomic level, it is critical to end the tug of war that manifests in the clear lacuna evident between the growth phase and the redistribution phase. The mainstream growth process that creates exclusion as well as inequalities tends to overpower the redistribution process and intensifies exclusion. Both the growth phase and the redistribution phase should be complimentary to each other for mainstream growth to be more inclusive.

If we simply talk about principles of fair, equitable and sustainable growth as a precursor to economic development for the overall well-being of a nation’s economy; it is critical in every developing economy like India to have a self-drawn map for developmental growth. The nature of such development beyond the maximisation of comparative economic advantages, warrants an institutional self-assessing process realising the collective social choice of societies in the process; one which is less transcendental in achieving what is “ideal” as against what is pertinent.

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Read more about her campaign. 

A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

Read more about the campaign here.

A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

Read more about the campaign here.

A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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