Integrating women across the South Asian factory floor

Last Updated: Sun, Dec 30, 2012 20:20 hrs

As 2012 draws to a close, the brutal gangrape and death of a young girl and the spotlight it has shone on India's ungainly political class will be the abiding image of the year.

What is even more stunning is that if you look across the regional political landscape, women leaders in top echelons of power across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh have largely not been able to effect as well as control change that is taking place across their nations.

India's Sonia Gandhi, Mayawati and Sushma Swaraj, alongside Bangladesh's Sheikh Hasina and Khaleda Zia and the political inheritors of Pakistan's Bhutto family have been so caught up in the traditional ways in which power has been framed that they have not had the political will to change it.

But as India moves to integrate itself economically with the rest of South Asia, a priority for 2013, the consequent transformations in standards of living can only be real if these are shared across caste, class as well as gender.

In the coming year, Pakistan will soon move to fulfilling the promise it gave India some months ago, the Most Favoured Nation status, thereby accepting that normal trading relations with a country it has considered an enemy for so many years is a possibility. India will reciprocate by dropping barriers for investment in Pakistan and allow Pakistani businesspersons to invest in India.

Anecdotally, it is believed that Gul Ahmed, perhaps Pakistan's biggest textile magnate and one of its richest people, has been having sell-out shows of his textiles every week for the last several weeks in one or another Indian city. It seems as if Indians can't have enough of Gul Ahmed's creations.

On the other side is Bangladesh, glorying in the lifting of tariff barriers across the board and enabling Bangladeshi exports into India to reach $500 million (from a meagre $50 million) in the space of only a year. But Bangladeshis are also crying hoarse about the non-tariff and para-tariff barriers that remain in India-Bangladesh trade, while India counters the argument with Bangladeshi disinterest in improving connectivity between its northeastern states and Bangladesh.

A case in point is the 11.5-km railway line from Akhaura in Bangladesh to Agartala, the capital of Tripura. It seems that when Bangladesh Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina came to Delhi in 2010, she agreed that such a railway line should be laid. But it seems as if the Bangladesh government has not even purchased the land so far.

Of course, Dhaka's argument is that India must first sign the Teesta waters pact before such connectivity linkages can be established. Hasina and her government came under severe political pressure when the Teesta agreement did not take place as scheduled and in turn cancelled all the initiatives it was planning to take on several cross-border linkages.

Clearly the time has come for the political leadership across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh — several of them women — to take charge of their respective constituencies in 2013 and not allow national ego to come in the way of improving the lives of their citizens.

Over the next year and a half, all three countries are going in for elections — Pakistan is first, around May next year, Bangladesh will hold polls towards the end of 2013, while India is slated to hold its own in mid-2014. The coming months will be teeming with several political contradictions, but if these leaderships can think in terms of a broader political canvas, the economic integration of South Asia is bound to have an impact on the kind of political representation that is thrown up.

For India, the economic integration of South Asia will remain a priority, not only because of the political benefits it is bound to have, but also because the economies of scale — that is the larger South Asian market — is bound to push up profits.

In such a scenario, unless the growing number of women on the shop or factory floor or in workplaces elsewhere are genuinely integrated and women allowed to work without fear or favour, the expansion of these markets will be at the expense of real growth. The death of a young girl in Delhi is at once an opportunity for India Inc, as well as the rest of South Asia's political representatives, to look within and ask how they can enhance the presence of women in the work-force and make it equitable and inclusive.

Answering this question over 2013 will be a big political challenge.

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