I had the opportunity to be a part of the launch of "Economic Challenges to Make South Asia Free from Poverty and Deprivation" in Washington and was truly inspired by the talent and knowledge of the students and the ideas and enthusiasm generated by the event across the region.
The event, coordinated across the region through video conference was moderated by Economic Adviser Shekhar Shah, who authored the foreward, and was exceptionally encouraging of the students and the issues discussed in the volume and organized by Hema Balasubramanian who heads the Public Information Center  in New Delhi.
The unique student initiative that created the book, South Asia Economics Students’ Meet (SAESM), edited by Meeta Kumar and Mihir Pandey promotes budding economists to foster intellectual discourse with other students from the region. The annual conference, since 2004, has provided an opportunity for exceptional economic students to write, present, and share their academic papers on economic issues critical to the region.
“In my view, in looking for solutions that work best in specific situations, the fresh perspectives that you young economists will bring to the table can add to our understanding of what works and what doesn’t. So it is very important that those of us in the development business listen,” Shah said.
I was struck by the thoughtfulness of discussion, the poise of the students, and the strenuous process that allowed them to participate in the event in which the best papers are selected from each country and then published in the book.
As a less integrated region, the conference also allows students to travel to other South Asian countries they otherwise may not have and see realities on the ground for themselves. Snidgha Dewal, a previous participant from New Delhi commented how comfortable and at home she felt when she visited Lahore during the conference. SAESM fosters an atmosphere of cross learning and creates network around the globe in which participants often continue staying in touch and exchanging views years later. The next conference will be held in Colombo, Sri Lanka in august.
The book is divided into four sections ranging from Accelerating Rural Growth to Improving the quality of Physical Infrastructure. There are two papers that resonated most with me. The Efficiency of the Samurdhi program in Sri Lanka by Shazana Ismail and Jithmal Samankantha finds that there are a number of leakages of the Samurdhi social protection program in Sri Lanka to the magnitude of 23% requiring a redesign to optimize efficacy and efficiency.
The Case of Traffic Congestion in Mumbai by Manka Bajaj highlights the importance of increasing infrastructure investments in a booming metropolis where average vehicular speeds have fallen from 38 kilometers per hour in 1962 to 15 today. She proposes that road pricing reforms, non price rationing, public transport emphasis, and carpool lanes will do more than just expanding the current road system would.
Africa Region’s chief economist Shanta Devarajan, officially launched the book, remarked that the students’ ideas are extremely pragmatic and practical and they should share their findings as far and wide as possible while policy makers have the responsibility of looking at them closely to find solutions to these developmental challenges.
It was inspiring to see the future policy and opinion makers of South Asia working together to find answers to difficult economic questions in South Asia and I look forward to continue my interactions with SAESM participants and future events.