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India's push for farm issues at WTO remains unsuccessful

Developing world led by India and China had thrown their weight behind a demand for a solution on food stockpiling

Subhayan Chakraborty  |  New Delhi 

has struggled to achieve its trade goals on a multilateral platform such as the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in the past, but the current year saw a drop in support for issues crucial to and pushed back chances of the country achieving a permanent solution to food stockpiling.

Earlier this month, the 11th Ministerial Conference of the WTO, the largest global meet for multilateral trade talks held biennially, came to an end without any significant outcome as nations dug into their divergent positions and the US played spoilsport to India’s demands for a permanent solution on public stockpiling of foodgrain.

Held in Buenos Aires, Argentina, the meet had set the tone for global negotiations in trade rules over the next two years and pointed to a scenario where the development-based agricultural issues had been cast away not only by high-income economies but several smaller and economically weaker nations as well, many of whom had remained India’s allies on the matter, Abhijit Das, head of the Centre for WTO studies said.

While the developing world led by and had thrown their weight behind a demand for a solution on food stockpiling, besides domestic subsidies to the agriculture sector, developed nations such as the United States, the European Union and Australia remained staunchly against it, he added. Das had sounded the alarm before the meet began by saying that no major country apart from India was actively talking about the Doha development agenda.

With wide divergence in negotiating positions established before the onset of the summit, trade experts had confidently predicted that few, if any, outcomes would emerge. This had been hinted at by the government as well with Commerce and Industry Minister Suresh Prabhu telling Business Standard last month that India needed to look beyond the WTO ministerial and clearly lay out how to deal with the multilateral platform in future.

Changing topics

On the other hand, the richer nations strived to bring into the discussions a stream of issues from rules for small and medium enterprises to gender rights in global trade, which India has categorised as non-trade issues. Many of these proposals ran counter to India’s interests while also reducing the policy space for governments if norms were decided beforehand, JS Deepak, India’s ambassador at the WTO had said.

Explained: WTO talks collapse as US plays spoilsport to India's demands

Deepak pointed out that discussing a set of global rules for facilitating trade by SMEs would harm India’s interests since there was no decision on how to define an SME at the WTO. The proposal by a group of rich nations revolves around providing trade benefits to such enterprises based on size while India and other developing nations have always argued that benefits should be based on special and differential treatment, currently allowed to such nations in global trade.

This debate reached a head when developed nations wanted to start talks on a proposed set of rules for global e-commerce, fiercely opposed by India.

India fears that new rules could provide the pretext for unfair mandatory market access to foreign companies. This will hurt the rapidly growing domestic e-commerce sector, which is still finding its niche, according to trade expert Biswajit Dhar.

Also, there were significant business interests involved, with global e-commerce giants looking for an official route to tap the lucrative markets of the developing world, especially India, he added.

Looking forward

India also did not push its proposal for a global trade pact on services, facing too much opposition to the current draft it has prepared.

Over the past year, India has been pushing for a (TFA) on services, based on the similar TFA on merchandise goods that became functional in February. India’s proposal focuses on expediting the global trade in services by allowing for easier movement of skilled workers between countries.

In the absence of even a formal ministerial declaration emanating from Argentina, nations will have to go forward based on the few work programmes decided by the WTO. Of these, the only consequential one is on the prevention of providing fisheries subsidies contributing to overfishing, the one area that was expected to see significant progress. Member nations simply committed to securing a deal on fisheries subsidies which delivers on Sustainable Development Goal 14.6 by the end of 2019. They also committed to improving the reporting of existing fisheries subsidy programmes. Till the time the next ministerial conference rolls through, India may be the only country speaking up for food security rights.

First Published: Sat, December 30 2017. 22:35 IST