Authors: Ms. Prerana Manral and Mr. Shreyansh Singh*
A report was released by the World Trade Organization (WTO) on May 8th highlighting the implications of graduation of Least Developed Countries (LDCs) on their trade participation. By virtue of their status as LDCs, these countries enjoy access to international support measures such as development financing, preferential market access, technical assistance etc. WTO also obliges LDCs with certain carve outs such as Special and Differential Treatment (S&DT) to increase their participation in global trade. The LDCs are graduated to developing country status if they meet the threshold levels for at least two of the three indicators i.e. Gross National Income (GNI), Human Assets Index (HAI) and Economic Vulnerability Index (EVI) for two consecutive triennial reviews. Interestingly, in 2018 Bangladesh became the first country to meet the thresholds for all the three indicators and if it meets these thresholds again for the second triennial review in 2021, it will be eligible for graduation in 2024.
In such a scenario, Bangladesh will lose some of the benefits provided to LDCs by developing and developed countries like the preferential market access which presently accords Bangladesh a competitive edge over Indian products. One of the key labor-intensive sectors which contributes significantly to the exports of both Bangladesh and India is garments industry. In 2009, both the countries almost had an equivalent share in the world market, however in 2018 India was left far behind Bangladesh. India’s total garment exports stood at 21 billion USD whereas Bangladesh’s exports were at 40 billion USD in 2018.
Bangladesh’s garment sector, due to its LDC status, currently enjoys a duty-free access to markets of Europe and other developed countries. Specifically in EU markets, goods from Bangladesh are covered under “Everything But Arms” (EBA) preferential arrangement which provides zero percent duty on all the products except arms and ammunition. On the other hand, India loses out due to 9% average tariff on garments under the Standard GSP scheme of EU. Further, under the SAFTA and APTA Agreements, India also provides similar duty-free market access to LDCs which along with the removal of quantitative restrictions has exponentially increased Bangladesh’s garments exports to India leading to a tough time for the domestic industry even in the internal market.
The major markets for India and Bangladesh garment exports are the EU, Australia, Canada and Japan. Trade estimates of garment products clearly show that India’s export in terms of value is significantly less than that of Bangladesh. Since 2010, India’s total share of exports grew by 9.4% whereas Bangladesh’s exports skyrocketed by 141% in these markets. The major reasons behind Bangladesh’s exemplary export performance are tariff exemptions and lower wage labor market which provides impetus to narrowly beat its competitors in the international market. The analysis done in the report reveals that 70% of Bangladesh’s overall export is covered under LDC-specific preferences.
At this juncture a possible graduation of Bangladesh will lead to termination of such preferential access granted exclusively to LDCs which may provide an opportunity for Indian exporters to grab a larger share. However, to maximize the gains arising from this development India needs to prepare a robust action-plan. Firstly, low cost inputs such as cheap power, land and raw materials will have far-reaching effects in enhancing the export competitiveness. Secondly, India should focus on mass scale production of garments in order to achieve economies of scale to bring down its cost of production. Presently, the production is limited majorly to small-scale enterprises which lack capital intensive technology. This in turn negatively affects the quality and time of production which are crucial factors in tapping the domestic and international markets. The improvement in these parameters would help Indian exporters to move up the value chain in terms of creating brand value for its superior quality products. Another overdue policy action could be cutting the import duties on high-quality machinery required for better production. In addition to this, a fiscal stimulus is required to boost the ecosystem in wake of Covid-19 pandemic.
Lastly, to offset the preferential access enjoyed by its competitors such as Vietnam, Bangladesh etc. India should identify its partners and strategically negotiate FTAs for lower tariffs and Non-Tariff Measures (NTMs) to obtain better market access for Indian exports. Needless to mention, India will only be able to reap the benefits arising from Bangladesh’s graduation (due in 2024) if it sows the right seeds today. Effectuating such policies especially at a time when corporate taxes are slashed to match that of India’s competitors along will definitely send a positive signal for investment in the sector from the top global garment companies.
*Authors are Research Fellows at Centre for WTO Studies, Indian Institute for Foreign Trade. Views expressed are personal.