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Sustainable consumption in South Asia: Making use of sustainable opportunities from the pandemic

More importantly, the South Asia region needs to realise that workers and farmers have a key role to play in promoting sustainable consumption as they are both the end consumers as well as the producers at the start of the supply chain, writes George Cheriyan & Simi T.B. for South Asia Monitor

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South Asia is home to more than half of the world’s poor. COVID-19 is pushing about 71 to 100 million more people into extreme poverty, and South Asia is one of the regions hardest hit. The region being diverse, any efforts to achieve circularity and resource efficiency in consumption and production and endeavour to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation vividly differ. 

South Asian region faces its worst economic performance in 40 years because of the pandemic, as per a World Bank Report. The report has slashed the region’s growth forecast for the year 2020 to 1.8 - 2.8 percent from its original projection of 6.3 percent made before the virus outbreak. The report further states that almost half the countries in this region could fall into deep recession and the hardest hit would be the Maldives where GDP is expected to decline by between 8.5 and 13 percent this year as it is high-end tourism-dependent island nation. Also, for Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Sri Lanka, the full range of their forecast GDP growth for this fiscal year is in negative territory. 

A report of All India Manufacturers Association states that nearly 35 percent of micro, small, medium enterprises (MSME) and 37 percent of self-employed entrepreneurs plan to wind up their businesses seeing no chance of recovery amid the COVID-19 outbreak. In Pakistan, 1.14 to 1.42 million SMEs out of 3.8 million may face a 50 percent decline in their income. The situation is no different in other countries within the region. In the Maldives, almost 17 percent of MSMEs surveyed had completely halted operations, either due to COVID-19 or prior performance issues that worsened during the pandemic.

Tourism, which was an important sector for all South Asian economies, has completely been wiped out, supply chains have been disrupted, demand and production of garments and textiles has been distorted, consumers purchasing power has reduced and most businesses are running at a loss. To make matters worse, millions of South Asians working abroad are forced to return back. It is projected by World Bank that remittance will fall by more than 22 percent in 2020. 

Sustainability in South Asia

As the region is home to a large part of the world population and holds one-third of the share in global poverty, the world cannot achieve UN-mandated Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) without South Asia achieving them. When it comes to the implementation of SDG 12 on sustainable consumption and production (SCP) within the region, the situation is quite discouraging, when compared to the implementation of other Goals in the Agenda. According to studies, the gap between the ecological footprint, or the demand for natural resources, and the environment’s ability to replenish those resources, or its biocapacity, is widening in South Asia. 

The SCP that was slowly gaining acceptance within the region has almost been ignored under the spread of the coronavirus. Nothing remains the same as prior to the pandemic, people’s needs and wants have changed drastically. There is a huge increase in the use of plastics like never before in healthcare and otherwise. Just within a month of the lockdown in Bangladesh, about 14500 tons of hazardous plastic waste had emerged from the dramatically increased use of single-use surgical face masks, hand gloves, hand sanitizers, and polythene bags in communities and health care facilities. 

Apart from the medical wastes, one could witness an increased dependence of consumers on information technology during the pandemic. In India, alone the total wireless subscribers increased to 1,144.18 million by the end of July 2020 and the overall broadband subscriber base increased to 705.40 million. It should be remembered that India generated 3.2 million tonnes of e-waste last year, ranking third globally.

Following the current growth rate of e-waste, an ASSOCHAM-EY joint report, titled ‘Electronic Waste Management in India’ estimated India to generate 5.2 million tonnes by 2021. The study also identified computer equipment and mobile phones as the principal waste generators in India. So as the dependence on electronic gadgets increases, the e-waste issue will swell up if not for an adequate intervention. Unfortunately, at present India is the only country within the region to have e-waste legislation. 

Way forward

To achieve sustainable consumption in South Asia, the region should first attempt to address the concerns of the basic needs of the vulnerable populations and low-income households.
 
More importantly, the South Asia region needs to realise that workers and farmers have a key role to play in promoting sustainable consumption as they are both the end consumers as well as the producers at the start of the supply chain. Production of sustainable-friendly products and services should be encouraged with supporting, policies and such products should be made accessible and affordable to all. Governments should set an example by effectively using policy tools like public procurements.

More importantly, the sustainable opportunities created by the pandemic like avoiding unnecessary travels, less dependence on office space and more on technology, people’s dependence on local food stores, growing their own organic vegetables on the backyard, balconies/terrace should be encouraged with adequate support.

While reconnecting, countries should rebuild recovery plans that will reverse current trends and change the consumption and production patterns towards a more sustainable future. 

(George Cheriyan is Director CUTS International, a global public policy and consumer advocacy group. He is also a member of the Global Think Tank on Sustainable Consummation hosted by Swedish Society for Nature Conservation (SSNC), Stockholm. Simi T.B.is Policy Analyst at CUTS International. The views expressed are personal)

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