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Indian Economy: Liberalisation gone for a toss?

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India always had an exasperating tie-in with quotas, low tariffs and restrictions. During 1960-85, it had sky-high tariffs but clearly the policies failed miserably. After it borrowed funds from the IMF in 1991 due to the economic crisis, it was compelled to follow the liberalisation policy and thus the regime of permit raj came to an end. The economic policy reforms remarkably upgraded India’s position in terms of GDP growth, quality of life and purchasing power parity. In recent years, it appears that the Indian economy is driving back to the protectionist policies which prevailed the pre-1991 period.

The Protectionism Hypocrisy

At the World Economic Forum meeting in 2018 in Davos, PM Narendra Modi, indirectly pointing towards Trump who have been propelling an “America First” Policy said that some nations were looking inwards and being protectionist. He appealed for more accessibility and free trade. Fast forward to 2019, India opted out of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). The reasons are believed to be the fear of being swamped by imports especially from China, putting the domestic industries at risk. Given that India already suffers from a trade deficit from the members of RCEP of $105 billion and out of that $53.56 billion is from China alone, this decision seems very rational. But is it really?

Piyush Goyal (Commerce and Industry Minister) claimed that this decision will boost “Make in India” and that Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) with countries like Japan, South Korea and ASEAN provided them with duty-free access to Indian markets but domestic goods faced barriers in their territories. But this is not the entire picture. To test whether the FTAs were beneficial or not, the Economic Survey 2019-20 conducted research. For this, it took into account 14 trade agreements signed by India. Only the trade agreements with Korea, Japan and Sri Lanka had a negative impact which means that the percentage rise in imports was greater than the percentage rise in exports. Other trade agreements had either no impact or a positive impact.

Talking about the overall effect with the trading partners, the Indian economy actually gained. The impact on exports was 13.4% for manufactured products and 10.9% for the total merchandise. Whereas the impact on imports were found to be lower at 12.7% for manufactured products and 8.6% for total merchandise. Therefore, from the perspective of the trade balance, India has obviously gained in terms of 0.7% increase in trade surplus per year for manufactured products and a 2.3% increase in trade surplus per year for total merchandise. Although, all the views regarding the fallout of the decision to step back from the RCEP agreement are just speculations at this point and we will get to know about the actual effects in the years to come.

Back in January, when Jeff Bezos visited India, he got no reception from PM Narendra Modi. Piyush Goyal advocated that Bezos was only covering up losses from predatory pricing by investing $1 billion in India and also condemned his pledge to create a million jobs by 2025 arguing that it hardly made up for the millions of Indians put out of work by the e-commerce site. It is a popular opinion that the Chinese were able to build tech giants like Alibaba only because they shut out US-based firms like Google and Facebook. Therefore, it is believed that India should also block them and create its own local champions. But to aid its overall development, the Indian economy needs all the economic vigour it can assemble and that involves attracting foreign investors. With its frequent policy changes, India has already got an image as a troublesome and unpredictable place to invest. The government further signalled the investors about their protectionist intentions through this act and risked a dampening effect on investors globally.

Protectiveness Vitiates The Budget As Well

In the budget 2020, the government not only hiked custom duties on a wide range of goods like grocery items, shoes, dolls and toys, ceiling fans, wooden furniture, kitchenware appliances, hairdryers, shelled walnut but also intends to make changes in the Customs Act 1962 through the Finance Bill. It will be amended to give the government the power to impose safeguard duties and tariff-rate quotas on imports on the pretence of injury to the domestic industry. Since the 1991 liberalisation era, this power was restricted to trade of gold and silver. The procedure for claiming preferential tariff rates under trade pacts has also been made complicated with importers having to give declarations along with the certificate of origin.

These changes will surely increase the scope of corruption by bureaucrats as they get more power. Also, these arbitrary tax spikes will lead to economic distortions and worsen the rent-seeking activities by domestic industries as they will lobby for their preferred tariffs which would have been dampened in a world with uniform taxes. Thus, instead, it needs to adopt the strategy of simplified, uniform and predictable tariffs which will eliminate tariff Inversion (in which intermediate goods are taxed more heavily than the final goods) and distortion costs could be kept very low.

The current policy choice reflects a highly mistaken mindset that one can cut back on imports while boosting exports, not realising that a reduction in imports, induced by an increase in tariffs, is expected to lead to a decrease in exports of a corresponding value. This is known as the Lerner’s Symmetry Theorem, a result used in international trade theory stating that an ad valorem import tariff will have the same effects as an export tax and is based on the observation that the effect on relative prices is the same regardless of the policy.

A Call To Escalate Exports

According to the World Trade Statistical Review, 2019 by World Trade Organisation (WTO), India’s average annual growth rate in merchandise exports was 5.3% between 2008 and 2018 which is well below Vietnam, Bangladesh and China. The growth rate of India in commercial services export was 8.6% per year on average from 2008 to 2018. This is below many of the developing countries namely China, Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore, Thailand, Qatar and Myanmar. There has been a substantial increase in exports of transport equipment, chemicals and food products which contributed to moving up India to the 19th position in world rankings of top exporting countries.

Although India has achieved many milestones in the last decade, it can do much better given its potential and unexplored territories. In fact, the government should try to increase its exports than constantly trying to decrease the imports if it wants to be a $5 trillion economy. Some scholars argue that the huge trade deficit of India is not because of increasing imports but of decreasing exports.

“Unless India’s exports grow at 15%, we won’t get 8% growth. For that, we should reverse some of the protectionist measures taken. If we turn protectionist, I don’t know how can we be an exporting power. Self-sufficient exporting powerhouse is an oxymoron” – Arvind Subramanian said while speaking at a webcast organized by EY India.

In the Economic Survey, while discussing India’s performance on Ease of Doing Business (EoDB), a series of case studies shows the inefficiency in the Indian system of Trading across Borders. As Italy topped the EoDB ranking in Trading across Borders, they compared India’s performance with that of Italy. India takes 60-68 hours in border compliance for exports while Italy took only one hour. Moreover, the cost of compliance is zero in Italy compared to $260-281 in India for export. Almost 70% of the delays occur due to procedural complexities, multiple documentations and involvement of multiple agencies for approvals and clearances. These inefficiencies, in turn, lead to time delay and end up pushing the cost to trade. Progressing digitalisation and combining various companies in a single digital platform could possibly decrease these inefficiencies and enhance users experience considerably.

Also, a study found that an apparels consignment going from Delhi to Maine (USA) takes roughly 41 days, but 19 of these are spent within India due to delays in transportation, customs clearance and loading at sea-ports. Apparently, the process flow for imports is more efficient than that for exports. In contrast, however, the imports and exports of electronics through Bengaluru airport were found to be top-notch. It thus recommended that the processes of Indian airports should be replicated in sea-ports as well.

It also suggested adopting policies aimed at strengthening its involvement in the export market for Network Products (NP) in order to get linked with the Global Value Chain (GVC). Through observations, it has been found that countries who substantially increased their exports and managed to maintain it did it through linking up with the GVCs. Given our vast labour force with relatively low skill-set, India’s strength lies in the assembly of NP. While the short-term objective is the expansion of assembly activities on a large scale by making use of imported parts & components, giving a boost to domestic production of parts & components should be the long-term objective. Assembly is a highly labour-intensive area that can provide jobs for the huge population of our country, while domestic production of parts & components can create high skill jobs. But for a country like India to transform into a preferred location for manufacturing enterprises, it is imperative that import tariff rates for standard goods are zero or negligible.Thus, India needs to control itself on the tariffs and restrictions. India needs accessibility, it needs foreign investment, it needs the competition to be a world-leader.

Conclusion

There are different kinds of restrictions when it comes to protectionism. We can certainly have the set of duties which seeks to create a level playing field for the MSMEs but it becomes harmful when we instead try to protect the industries which are already in a good position in terms of opportunities in the hope to flourish them. There is just a slight difference between these two kinds and policymakers need to incorporate this idea when drafting policies. For instance, India refused to allow permanent tariff liberalisation on health and farm products at the WTO Council Meeting as an answer to trade disruptions caused by COVID-19 is not harmful protectionism. Every country will bear the brunt of COVID-19, the difference being the level of disruptions faced by each one of them. But we should also keep in mind that the least developed and developing countries need to be guarded given the lack of resources available to defend themselves from the crisis.

India acknowledges the disruptions caused in the flow of medical supplies, food and other goods and services across borders and has been playing a proactive role in combating it but doing so at the cost of its own industries is something India (or for that matter none of the countries) would like to do given the economic crisis they are going to face. At the same time blindly putting up restrictions will only lead to increased prices for competitively produced imports and the customers will end up footing the bill. India committed the same mistake back in the 1970s. In order to be self-sufficient, a country needs to make its industries capable through the competition so that the users do not pay the price by buying some cheap quality or inefficiently produced product. Protectionism is not the ideal approach if we want to grow. We should have an equally or even more efficiently produced substitute ready if we want to raise the tariffs. Thus, India should instead focus on the production inside the country and work on infrastructure, logistics, productivity and lifting the standards of products if it wants to reduce the trade deficit.

Aakash Agarwal is currently pursuing a Bachelor of Science in Economics (Honours) from Doon University, Dehradun, India. He has a research interest includes Global Economy, Financial Economics and IR Theory. His work has been published by the Diplomatist Magazine, South Asia Democratic Forum and the Kootneeti.

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Bangladesh-Myanmar Economic Ties: Addressing the Next Generation Challenges

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Bangladesh-Myanmar relations have developed through phases of cooperation and conflict. Conflict in this case is not meant in the sense of confrontation, but only in the sense of conflict of interests and resultant diplomatic face-offs. Myanmar is the only other neighbor that Bangladesh has on its border besides India. It is the potential gateway for an alternative land route opening towards China and South-East Asia other than the sea. Historically, these two countries have geographic and cultural linkages. These two bordering countries, located in separate geopolitical regions, have huge possibilities in developing their bilateral economic relations. At the initial phase of their statehood, both countries undertook numerous constructive initiatives to improve their relations. Nevertheless, different bilateral disputes and challenges troubled entire range of cooperation. Subsequent to these challenges, Bangladesh and Myanmar have started negotiation process on key dubious issues. The economic rationales over political tensions in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations prevail with new prospects and opportunities.

Bangladesh-Myanmar relations officially began from 13 January 1972, the date on which Myanmar, as the sixth state, recognized Bangladesh as a sovereign nation. They signed several agreements on trade and business such as general trade agreement in 1973. The two countries later initiated formal trade relations on 05 September 1995. To increase demand for Bangladeshi products in Myanmar, Bangladesh opened trade exhibitions from 1995 to 1996 in Yangon, former capital of Myanmar. However, that pleasant bilateral economic relations did not last for long, rather was soon interrupted mainly by Myanmar’s long term authoritarian rule and isolationist economic policy. In the twenty-first century, Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are expected to move towards greater economic cooperation facilitated by two significant factors. First, the victory of Myanmar’s pro-democratic leader, Aung San Suu Kyi, in 2011 has considerably brought new dimensions in the relations. Although this relation is now at stake since the state power has been taken over by military. Second, the peaceful settlement of Bangladesh-Myanmar maritime dispute in 2012 added new dimension in their economic relations.

Bangladesh and Myanmar don’t share a substantial volume of trade and neither is in the list of largest trading partners. Bangladesh’s total export and import with Myanmar is trifling compared to the total export and import and so do Myanmar’s. But gradually the trades between the countries are increasing and the trend is for the last 5 to 6 year is upward especially for Bangladesh; although Bangladesh is facing a negative trend in Balance of Payment. In 2018-2019 fiscal year, Bangladesh’s total export to Myanmar was $25.11 million which is more than double from that of the export in 2011-12. Bangladesh imported $90.91 million worth goods and services from Myanmar resulting in $65 Million deficit in Balance of Payment in 2018-2019 fiscal year. For the last six or seven years, Bangladesh’s Balance of Payment was continuously in deficit in case of trade with Myanmar. The outbreak of COVID-19, closure of border for eight months and recent coup in Myanmar have a negative impact on the trade between the countries. 

Bangladesh mainly imports livestock, vegetable products including onion, prepared foodstuffs, beverages, tobacco, plastics, raw hides and skin, leather, wood and articles of woods, footwear, textiles and artificial human hair from Myanmar. Recently, due to India’s ban on cattle export, Myanmar has emerged as a new exporter of live animals to Bangladesh especially during the Eid ul-Adha with a cheaper rate than India. On the hand, Bangladesh exports frozen foods, chemicals, leather, agro-products, jute products, knitwear, fish, timber and woven garments to Myanmar.

Unresolved Rohingya crisis, Myanmar’s highly unpredictable political landscape, lack of bilateral connectivity, shadow economy created from illegal activities, distrust created due to different insurgent groups, maritime boundary dispute, illegal drugs and arms smuggling in border areas, skeptic mindset of the people in both fronts and alleged cross border movement of insurgents are acting as stumbling block in bolstering economic relations between Bangladesh and Myanmar.

Bangladesh-Myanmar relations are yet to blossom in full swing. The agreement signed by Sheikh Hasina in 2011 to establish a Joint Commission for Bilateral Cooperation is definitely a proactive step for enhancing trade. People to people contact can be increased for building mutual confidence and trust. Frequent visit by business, civil society, military and civil administration delegates may be organized for better understanding and communication. Both countries may explore economic potential and address common interest for enhancing economic co-operation. In order to augment trade, both countries may ease visa restrictions, deregulate currency restrictions and establish smooth channel of financial transactions. Coastal shipping (especially cargo vessels between Chittagong and Sittwe), air and road connectivity may be developed to inflate trade and tourism. Bangladesh and Myanmar may establish “Point of Contact” to facilitate first-hand information exchange for greater openness. Initiative may be taken to sign Preferential Trade Agreement (PTA) within the ambit of which potential export items from both countries would be allowed to enter duty free. In recent year, Bangladesh was badly affected by many unilateral decisions of India such as onion crisis. Myanmar can serve as an alternative import source of crops and animals for Bangladesh to lessen dependence upon India.

Myanmar’s currency is highly devaluated for a long time due to its political turmoil and sanctions by the west. Myanmar can strengthen its currency value by escalating trade volume with Bangladesh. These two countries can fortify their local economy in boarder areas by establishing border haats. Cooperation between these two countries on “Blue Economy” may be source of strategic advantages mainly by exporting marine goods and service. Last but not the least, the peaceful settlement of maritime boundary disputes between Bangladesh and Myanmar in 2012 may be capitalized to add new dimension in their bilateral economic relations. Both nations can expand trade and investment by utilizing the Memorandum of Understanding on the establishment of a Joint Business Council (JBC) between the Republic of the Union of Myanmar Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industry (UMFCCI) and the Federation of Bangladesh Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FBCCI).

With the start of a new phase in Bangladesh-Myanmar relations, which has put the bilateral relations on an upswing, it is only natural that both sides should try to give a boost to bilateral trade. Bilateral trade is not challenge free but the issue is far easier to resolve than others. At the same time, closer economic ties could also help in resolving other bilateral disputes. For Myanmar, as it is facing currency devaluation and losing market, increased trade volume will make their economy vibrant. For Bangladesh, it is a good opportunity to use the momentum to minimize trade deficits and reduce dependency on any specific country.

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The Monetary Policy of Pakistan: SBP Maintains the Policy Rate

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The State Bank of Pakistan (SBP) announced its bi-monthly monetary policy yesterday, 27th July 2021. Pakistan’s Central bank retained the benchmark interest rate at 7% after reviewing the national economy in midst of a fourth wave of the coronavirus surging throughout the country. The policy rate is a huge factor that relents the growth and inflationary pressures in an economy. The rate was majorly retained due to the growing consumer and business confidence as the global economy rebounds from the coronavirus. The State Bank had slashed the interest rate by 625 basis points to 7% back in the March-June 2020 in the wake of the covid pandemic wreaking havoc on the struggling industries of Pakistan. In a poll conducted earlier, about 89% of the participants expected this outcome of the session. It was a leap of confidence from the last poll conducted in May when 73% of the participants expected the State Bank to hold the discount rate at this level.

The State Bank Governor, Dr. Raza Baqir, emphasized that the Monetary Policy Committee (MPC) has resorted to holding the 7% discount rate to allow the economy to recover properly. He added that the central bank would not hike the interest rate until the demand shows noticeable growth and becomes sustainable. He echoed the sage economists by reminding them that the State Bank wants to relay a breather to Pakistan’s economy before pushing the brakes. The MPC further asserted that the Real Discount Rate (adjusted for inflation) currently stands at -3% which has significantly cushioned the economy and encouraged smaller industries to grow despite the throes of the pandemic.

Dr. Raza Baqir further went on to discuss the current account deficit staged last month. He added that the 11-month streak of the current account surplus was cut short largely due to the loan payments made in June. The MPC further explained that multiple factors including an impending expiration of the federal budget, concurrent payments due to lenders, and import of vaccines, weighed heavily down on the national exchequer. He further iterated that the State Bank expects a rise in exports along with a sustained recovery in the remittance flow till the end of 2021 to once again upend the current account into surplus. Dr. Raza Baqir assured that the current level of the current account deficit (standing at 3% of the GDP) is stable. The MPC reminded that majority of the developing countries stand with a current account deficit due to growth prospects and import dependency. The claims were backed as Dr. Raza Baqir voiced his optimism regarding the GDP growth extending from 3.9% to 5% by the end of FY21-22. 

Regarding currency depreciation, Dr. Baqir added that the downfall is largely associated with the strengthening greenback in the global market coupled with high volatility in the oil market which disgruntled almost every oil-importing country, including Pakistan. He further remarked, however, that as the global economy is vying stability, the situation would brighten up in the forthcoming months. Mr. Baqir emphasized that the current account deficit stands at the lowest level in the last decade while the remittances have grown by 25% relative to yesteryear. Combined with proceeds from the recently floated Eurobonds and financial assistance from international lenders including the IMF and the World Bank, both the currency and the deficit would eventually recover as the global market corrects in the following months.

Lastly, the Governor State Bank addressed the rampant inflation in the economy. He stated that despite a hyperinflation scenario that clocked 8.9% inflation last month, the discount rates are deliberately kept below. Mr. Baqir added that the inflation rate was largely within the limits of 7-9% inflation gauged by the State Bank earlier this year. However, he further added that the State Bank is making efforts to curb the unrelenting inflation. He remarked that as the peak summer demand is closing with July, the one-way pressure on the rupee would subsequently plummet and would allow relief in prices.

The MPC has retained the discount rate at 7% for the fifth consecutive time. The policy shows that despite a rebound in growth and prosperity, the threat of the delta variant still looms. Karachi, Pakistan’s busiest metropolis and commercial hub, has recently witnessed a considerable surge in infections. The positivity ratio clocked 26% in Karachi as the national figure inched towards 7% positivity. The worrisome situation warrants the decision of the State Bank of Pakistan. Dr. Raza Baqir concluded the session by assuring that despite raging inflation, the State Bank would not resort to a rate hike until the economy fully returns to the pre-pandemic levels of employment and production. He further assuaged the concerns by signifying the future hike in the policy rate would be gradual in nature, contrast to the 2019 hike that shuffled the markets beyond expectation.

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Reforms Key to Romania’s Resilient Recovery

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Over the past decade, Romania has achieved a remarkable track record of high economic growth, sustained poverty reduction, and rising household incomes. An EU member since 2007, the country’s economic growth was one of the highest in the EU during the period 2010-2020.

Like the rest of the world, however, Romania has been profoundly impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic. In 2020, the economy contracted by 3.9 percent and the unemployment rate reached 5.5 percent in July before dropping slightly to 5.3 percent in December. Trade and services decreased by 4.7 percent, while sectors such as tourism and hospitality were severely affected. Hard won gains in poverty reduction were temporarily reversed and social and economic inequality increased.

The Romanian government acted swiftly in response to the crisis, providing a fiscal stimulus of 4.4 percent of GDP in 2020 to help keep the economy moving. Economic activity was also supported by a resilient private sector. Today, Romania’s economy is showing good signs of recovery and is projected to grow at around 7 percent in 2021, making it one of the few EU economies expected to reach pre-pandemic growth levels this year. This is very promising.

Yet the road ahead remains highly uncertain, and Romania faces several important challenges.

The pandemic has exposed the vulnerability of Romania’s institutions to adverse shocks, exacerbated existing fiscal pressures, and widened gaps in healthcare, education, employment, and social protection.

Poverty increased significantly among the population in 2020, especially among vulnerable communities such as the Roma, and remains elevated in 2021 due to the triple-hit of the ongoing pandemic, poor agricultural yields, and declining remittance incomes.

Frontline workers, low-skilled and temporary workers, the self-employed, women, youth, and small businesses have all been disproportionately impacted by the crisis, including through lost salaries, jobs, and opportunities.

The pandemic has also highlighted deep-rooted inequalities. Jobs in the informal sector and critical income via remittances from abroad have been severely limited for communities that depend on them most, especially the Roma, the country’s most vulnerable group.

How can Romania address these challenges and ensure a green, resilient, and inclusive recovery for all?

Reforms in several key areas can pave the way forward.

First, tax policy and administration require further progress. If Romania is to spend more on pensions, education, or health, it must boost revenue collection. Currently, Romania collects less than 27 percent of GDP in budget revenue, which is the second lowest share in the EU. Measures to increase revenues and efficiency could include improving tax revenue collection, including through digitalization of tax administration and removal of tax exemptions, for example.

Second, public expenditure priorities require adjustment. With the third lowest public spending per GDP among EU countries, Romania already has limited space to cut expenditures, but could focus on making them more efficient, while addressing pressures stemming from its large public sector wage bill. Public employment and wages, for instance, would benefit from a review of wage structures and linking pay with performance.

Third, ensuring sustainability of the country’s pension fund is a high priority. The deficit of the pension fund is currently around 2 percent of GDP, which is subsidized from the state budget. The fund would therefore benefit from closer examination of the pension indexation formula, the number of years of contribution, and the role of special pensions.

Fourth is reform and restructuring of State-Owned Enterprises, which play a significant role in Romania’s economy. SOEs account for about 4.5 percent of employment and are dominant in vital sectors such as transport and energy. Immediate steps could include improving corporate governance of SOEs and careful analysis of the selection and reward of SOE executives and non-executive bodies, which must be done objectively to ensure that management acts in the best interest of companies.

Finally, enhancing social protection must be central to the government’s efforts to boost effectiveness of the public sector and deliver better services for citizens. Better targeted social assistance will be more effective in reaching and supporting vulnerable households and individuals. Strategic investments in infrastructure, people’s skills development, and public services can also help close the large gaps that exist across regions.

None of this will be possible without sustained commitment and dedicated resources. Fortunately, Romania will be able to access significant EU funds through its National Recovery and Resilience Plan, which will enable greater investment in large and important sectors such as transportation, infrastructure to support greater deployment of renewable energy, education, and healthcare.

Achieving a resilient post-pandemic recovery will also mean advancing in critical areas like green transition and digital transformation – major new opportunities to generate substantial returns on investment for Romania’s economy.

I recently returned from my first official trip to Romania where I met with country and government leaders, civil society representatives, academia, and members of the local community. We discussed a wide range of topics including reforms, fiscal consolidation, social inclusion, renewably energy, and disaster risk management. I was highly impressed by their determination to see Romania emerge even stronger from the pandemic. I believe it is possible. To this end, I reiterated the World Bank’s continued support to all Romanians for a safe, bright, and prosperous future.

First appeared in Romanian language in Digi24.ro, via World Bank

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