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India to talk tough on food at WTO summit

TNC Rajagopalan 

This week, trade ministers of member countries of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) will meet for four days at Nairobi to find ways to take forward the agenda of trade liberalisation and elimination of trade-distorting measures. Hopes of a meaningful consensus on key issues seem very slim.

The 10th Ministerial Conference comes when growth in global trade is sluggish. Fears of more protectionist measures and non-tariff barriers are increasing. Major economies seem convinced that regional trade agreements are the way forward rather than messy and prolonged multilateral negotiations. The sticking points in the Doha Development Round seem intractable, due to the vastly divergent positions of member countries. The contentious issues are too technical to bring in substantial benefit, even if agreements can be reached on any of them. Most global leaders seem preoccupied with threats from terrorism, tackling climate change, regulating financial markets and reviving the global economy. Trade liberalisation does not seem to be a priority.

Unlike the Uruguay round, when poorer countries had very little say in the negotiations, the Doha round has witnessed significant participation and assertion by developing and least developed countries. Since the richer and poorer countries have very different perceptions and agenda on how to take the negotiations forward, it is difficult to get a consensus, essential under the WTO rules. Each member has a veto and quite a few are willing to use it, if their interests are not fully met.

The Marrakesh Agreement of 1994 has already led to near total elimination of quantitative restrictions and significant tariff reductions. The scope for further reductions is low, at least with industrial products. So, the focus is inevitably on liberalisation of trade in agriculture, reduction of trade-distorting subsidies, non-tariff barriers and closing the gap in labour, environment and quality standards amongst various countries.

India's view is that the 'work programme' on the remaining Doha Development Agenda issues needs to take into account the development mandate of the Doha round and in-built principles of Special and Differential Treatment available to developing countries without any differentiation. India wants to highlight livelihood and food security issues and resist any pressure that might hurt the poor. Any outcome in the Doha round needs to address the basic concerns of developing countries and provide them with a level-playing field for better integration in the global trading system, says the commerce ministry. In short, as in the Paris Climate Change Conference, India does not want to be bound by any commitments but wants the rich countries to make the concessions - something they are unwilling to do.

In his report to the General Council on December 7 about the potential outcomes of the Nairobi Ministerial Conference, the WTO Director-General Roberto Azevêdo said that there are no deliverables, either on the potential outcomes or on the Ministerial Declaration and nothing to transmit for the consideration of trade ministers in Nairobi, beyond some reports. He urged WTO members to seize the opportunity to show flexibility and political will needed for a successful Ministerial Conference, essential to support growth and development for all members.

Azevêdo's words may fall on deaf ears of trade ministers, more concerned right now with tackling their vocal domestic constituencies.


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First Published: Sun, December 13 2015. 23:49 IST