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Regional Trade And Developmental Challenges In South Asia

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By Dr Utpal K De & Dr Simi Mehta

COVID-19 has resulted in a disruption of trade as well as market linkage across the globe. The responses of various countries have been observed in the form of a structural shift from participating in global supply chains to looking inwardly. Lockdown of the economies hit global supply chains by halting the process of production and output. The world, for the first time in decades, experienced negative growth of over 7%. The IMF projects a bounce back by 2021, where the optimism is located in the growth potential within South Asian Economies.

There was an exponential reduction in trade across the countries, and India experienced a reduction in imports more than exports. This skewed response resulted in a belief that India had successfully responded to trade imbalance, and the understanding of today was the result of protectionism with both exports and imports being hit. However, there is a large potential for India and South Asia to grow both within global supply chains and building regional supply chains.

Trade As A Means For Development

Prof Amita Batra, Chairperson Centre for South Asian Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University, pointed out that trade is usually studied as a standalone economic variable. It is the development potential that should be looked at as a key motivation for growing inter-and intra-regional trade.

The South Asian region has been riddled with developmental concerns, which only exacerbated during and after the Lockdown. South Asia today houses the largest population of the global poor. Poverty is not just the absence of capital but translates into a losing the potential of demographic dividend due to concerns of hunger, education, skill development, and health care.

It is common knowledge today that South Asia holds a massive potential of the demographic dividend because of its large proportion of the population within a working-age group. This has so far translated into failed potential due to development and sustainability concerns.

How does trade which is traditionally seen as a marker of economic growth, respond to these concerns? Trade within it houses the potential to absorb this demographic dividend into production activity which would increase the flow of capital and eventually progress to answering larger developmental concerns at the micro-level. The biggest concern with the demographic dividend in South Asia, in her opinion, “there is an inability to match skills of working age group with demand for particular skills.”

Trade As An Engine Of Growth

It has been argued that trade is an important instrument of economic growth where there is percolation from the economic variable to individual life. Trade leads to prosperity from competitive advantage, and in order to sustain this advantage, there must be an efficient allocation of resources.

Effective and efficient allocation of resources results in ‘growth for all’. This aspect of the benefit of trade as an engine of growth, when pointed by Prof Amita Batra, encapsulated within it an understanding of the inequalities resulting from trade.

There would be industries that would become obsolete, and the role of the state becomes important. The state must ensure that the population which is rendered unemployed as their working sectors becomes obsolete must be re-skilled to meet the demands of the economy.

Trade’s Global Supply Chains

Trade is not always responsive to income can be nuanced to trade is differentially responsive to income. This leads to one sector becoming obsolete. To draw an analogy, the service sector has taken over the manufacturing sector as the lead traded commodity, even within manufactured products, intermediary products lead the share in trade. These trade cycles have resulted in global value chains.

The concerns with these global value chains remain that a dominant player in these global chains remains China. The reasons why China controls these global chains is because of the structural and economic benefits where it stands to be the second-largest economy. Its expansionary trade and fiscal, economic policies have resulted in a capital surplus economy where most of the countries stand at a disadvantage of increasing trade deficits.

Trade Deficits are difficult to sustain, and following the politics immediately with the COVID outbreak has begun a cycle to restore these global supply chains, looking at returning to North America and using ASEAN countries, including India, for their low cost of production. To capitalize on this opportunity, South Asia needs to revive its regional trade capacities. ASEAN has made itself a viable alternative which began with the Foreign Direct investment from Japan and resulted in a specialized segmented process where the market leads network production.

Way Forward

There needs to be a comprehensive response from South Asia in terms of strengthening regional value chains. Globally trade has grown exponentially by resulting from special trade agreements. South Asia as a region, has not resulted in similar agreement-based integration.

Regional integration has been bogged with socio-political concerns. Political and Geographical conflicts, which are the result of colonial history between the countries, need to be actively responded with possible solutions.

After engaging with the political questions, there needs to be a focus on expanding the normative engagement with trade and its impact. Dr Ganesh Wignaraja, Senior Fellow, ISAS, spoke on the need to evolve new trade policies following the unprecedented shock to economies. One needs to steer clear of extreme optimism because IMF projections can only be true if the vaccines result in a global immunity to the Virus (including the new strain). There has to be sceptical optimism, where the state does not become too complacent. They have to be more vigilant for a second shock or interrupted pattern to economic growth.

COVID-19 has also resulted in protectionist economic stands, and if they do not change, economic and trade growth will not be possible. Developmental questions can be responded to with an efficient understanding of problems that affect the population.

Food insecurity is a key concern that continues to loom in the region. Analyzing the Indian capacity for both investment and infrastructure could build into a trade value chain for Agro Processing. New sectors can aid South Asia to begin the journey of development and trade. These sectors are Financial Services and Digital Trade Treaties. These sectors hold within themselves the capacity to absorb a tertiary graduate population in the country.

The above are the event excerpts of the webinar as part of the series ‘The State of Economic Development in South Asia – #EconDevDiscussion ‘. The main speaker was Prof Amita Batra, Professor, JNU. Others who participated in the webinar were Shri N Ramesh, Deputy Managing Director, EXIM Bank; Dr Ganesha Wignaraja, Non-Resident Senior Fellow Institute of South Asian Studies (ISAS) NUS and Senior Research Associate, Overseas Development Institute London; Prof Prabir De, Professor, Research and Information System for Developing Countries (RIS); Dr Raghu Bir Bista, Associate Professor, Department of Economics, Tribhuvan University, Nepal; Dr Rezaul Karim Bakshi, Professor, Department of Economics, Rajshahi Unversity, Bangladesh.
Acknowledgment: Sakshi Sharda is a Research Intern at Impact and Policy Research Institute and is pursuing her MPhil from Centre for Political Studies, Jawaharlal Nehru University.
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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.

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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.

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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)’.

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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.”

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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 Change.org, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on Change.org has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in Change.org’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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