Last week's Brussels visit by Prime Minister Narendra Modi has started speculations that there will now be a renewed push for talks on the stalled EU-India broad-based trade and investment agreement (BTIA). The European Union (EU) is India's biggest trade and investment partner, so it could potentially be a good boost to the Indian economy. But the proposed agreement is one-sided, and will harm India's economic interests unless India negotiates harder. The analogy is that India is picking up the tab for the hotel room and the EU is just paying for the internet charges during the stay.
The public conversation on the EU-India BTIA is all about Indian tariff reductions on automobiles and greater ease of Indian infotech professionals to provide services to the EU. But going by the documents that can be accessed (more transparency would be nice), there are two big issues that need to be at the centre of the debate - investor rights and agricultural imports - because they will have big effects on people and future policy in India.
The proposal contains an investor-state dispute settlement agreement, which allows foreign firms to take the Indian government to an international tribunal if their ability to make profits in the country is under threat. The last time these clauses were invoked in India was after the Supreme Court cancelled 2G telecom licences bought by companies at "unbelievably low" prices, and when internationally the Canadian government dropped potential legislation on plain packaging of tobacco products due to lawsuit threats under its North American Free Trade Agreement.
Is that the price India must pay for encouraging foreign direct investment into the country? The answer is no. Australia recently negotiated a trade and investment agreement with the United States without agreeing to such investor rights, so surely Indian can do the same as it is the fastest growing economy in the world. Is the Bhopal gas tragedy so easily forgotten, and should we not learn from the lack of compensation to the victims that an unequal society calls for greater protection from the narrow legal tactics of investors?
Although the government has asked the EU for revisions to the text of the investor-state dispute settlement mechanism, the revisions don't go far enough. The main change is that firms would first need to pursue domestic legal remedies and can then access international arbitration for disputes with the government. Domestic firms do not have access to these international arbitration facilities, so this also goes against the spirit of the Make in India campaign of the Indian government.
Another worrisome proposal is the steep reduction in tariffs on agricultural imports from the EU. The continuing plight of Indian farmers is not going to be helped if they have to compete with heavily subsidised large agri-businesses based in Europe. For instance, the Danish milk producer, Arla Foods, received Rs 65 crore (8.6 million euros) when milk prices slumped in 2009/10, while the Indian government's most ambitious dairy plan is expected to have an outlay of Rs 17,300 crore per year. Spread over 750 lakh dairy farmers, this amounts to a minuscule Rs 230 (three euros) per dairy farmer. Opening to EU imports will not make the agricultural market more "competitive", it will lead to a dumping of the burden of EU agricultural subsidies on Indian farmers.
Investment and agricultural imports are not new issues. The government is retreating from the same battles it fought during the Uruguay Round of the World Trade Organisation in 1995. At that point, India was the force behind resistance to agreements on investment, government procurement, agricultural tariff reductions and intellectual property rights, which would mostly harm developing countries by limiting the policy options needed for economic growth. Yes, the world economy has changed now. But life for most people in India continues to be "nasty, brutish and short", so why is there a renewed push for an agreement that concedes to many of the same immiserating policies that India was once at the forefront of rejecting?
India must use its economic power now to get a better deal. This is possible. The EU had earlier insisted on drastic intellectual property laws in the proposed text. After much advocacy, the EU dropped this clause from the proposed text as it would have delayed the introduction of generic medicines and undermined public health (Medecins Sans Frontieres). Resistance to the clauses proposed by the EU does not derail the trade agreement - it ensures that India negotiates a deal that promotes its development goals.