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Assessing the trade of digitisable goods: implications for South Asia

Rahul Nath Choudhury (Institute of South Asian Studies, National University of Singapore, Singapore, Singapore)

Journal of Economic Studies

ISSN: 0144-3585

Article publication date: 5 June 2020




The technological progress has made it possible to transform a physical good into a digital one. This development has influenced international trade and a large volume of these digitisable items are increasingly crossing national boundaries. Goods like books, music and games which were earlier traded physically are now traded online. Digitalisation is reducing the cost of engaging in international trade, connecting businesses and consumers globally, helping to diffuse ideas and technologies and facilitating the coordination of global value chains. The emerging avenues of trade and its format supplemented with fast and ever-changing technology have posed a serious challenge for the policymakers around the world. Policymakers are grappling with several issues regarding digital trade for quite a long time but failed to provide any solution. Institutions like WTO and OECD are also seized with this matter. Yet, we do not have any correct assessment of the potential volume of digital trade. Second, due to the moratorium signed in WTO countries are unable to impose any duty of digital trade. South Asian region which is a net importer of these items loses a huge amount of revenue. Hence, in this study, we make an attempt to assess the potential volume of digital trade in South Asia. The study further tries to estimate the possible loss of tax revenue incurred by this region during the last decade. For both South Asia and India the results for actual import figure are found to be less than the estimated value. A gap of around US$1 billion was found between the actual and estimated import of India, while for South Asia it was the US$ 7 billion.


For estimation, the study largely follows Banga (2019) and extends the methodology further to estimate the tariff revenue loss. Following Banga (2019) the study identifies a list of goods that can be traded in both digitally or physically. In other words, a list of digitisable goods is prepared. Then their import by the South Asian region is measured. Then we examine the tariffs imposed by the individual South Asian countries on the physical trade of these items. The estimation is done by projecting the value of the global physical imports of digitisable products from 2011 to 2017 would have been without digitalisation and what the actual global imports are with digitalisation in this period. The difference between the two gives estimates of total digital imports by the region. The total physical imports of digitisable products in the period 2011–2017 are estimated applying the cumulative growth rate (CAGR) of regional imports of these products over the period 1998–2010. The difference between the estimated physical imports and the actual physical imports provides the estimates of digital imports. Finally, the summation of the tariffs for each of the items gives us the possible figure that the countries are losing by not imposing customs duties.


The study finds globally an estimated value of digitise items to be US$246 billion which is around the US$100 billion higher than the actual value of $147 billion during 2017. For both South Asian region and India estimated import is found to be higher than the actual value. The study estimated an import of $1 billion and $7 billion took place during 2017 in India and South Asia respectively.


Digital trade is undoubtedly one of the highest debated topics in international trade forums. Experts from both academic and corporate discourse are seized with this matter. Policymakers around the globe are poised with this issue to develop a comprehensive policy framework which facilitates the growth of the sector and at the same time safeguard the interest of the stakeholders. South Asian nations like India, Bangladesh and Pakistan are also grappling with this. In this background, it becomes utmost important to estimate the loss that they are incurring to take an informed policy decision.



Choudhury, R.N. (2020), "Assessing the trade of digitisable goods: implications for South Asia", Journal of Economic Studies, Vol. 48 No. 1, pp. 63-78.



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