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Free trade rules push farmers to margins

By Shalini Bhutani, Dec 4 2017, 23:30 IST

Recently, New Delhi saw an unprecedented farmers' parliament on the street outside Sansad Marg. Meanwhile, the capital is also preparing to participate in the Eleventh Ministerial Conference (MC11) of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). These may seem like two different events but are certainly not unrelated.

A large majority of farmers in the country have been asking for the WTO to be kept out of agriculture. They want to be free from the restrictive rules of so-called free trade.

Free trade rules are inten ded to remove barriers between borders for imports and exports. But it's the powerful countries and the transnatio nal corporations that they foster which make these rules. Further, these rules operate in the realities of imbalanced relations between countries, thereby widening the disparities.

The WTO, with its 164 member-countries is a venue where global trade rules are decided. Rule-making in WTO corridors is a classic example of inequalities and divergent interests. The MC, held every two years, is the highest level of decision-making. Unlike trade bureaucrats, ministers attending take political decisions here.

The WTO prescribes its member countries to liberalise the agriculture sector. This reorients our food and farm systems in the wrong direction. It shifts focus away from the real needs of our food producers and their farms to international market(s) that are run purely by the logic of profit and power.

The architecture of the global market is designed for big agribusinesses and decided at fora outside the national capitals and far removed from village bodies. The WTO and other free trade agreements (FTAs) set the terms of engagement in this market. The processes of their negotiation denationalise our decision-making on agriculture.

According to the Constitution of India, agriculture is a state subject. A process of trade talks left to a trade ministry in the Union government excludes the already marginalised farming communities. Our farming policies need to be re-routed to make social, cultural and ecological sense. Free trade rules have no place in a vision of relocalised production and food sovereignty.

Smallholder farmers are unable to get better prices, as they are no longer determinants of pricing. Free trade rules determine which agricultural commodities will be sold at what price and where. The Kisan Mukti Sansad's demand in the form of a Farmers' Right To Assured Remunerative Prices For Agricultural Produce Bill, 2017, recognises how free trade rules come in the way of farmers getting remunerative prices.

Cheap imports of grain, spices, dairy and other agricultural products means our farmers are not able to sell their produce at remunerative prices in their own country. Agricultural subsidies granted through WTO rules allow cheaper products at the cost of domestic producers. Dependence on global trade to sell agricultural produce exposes our producers to the volatilities of the international market.

Intellectual Property

Intellectual property (IP) rules prescribed in the WTO TRIPS (Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights) privatise life forms, including seeds. This is a deep disrespect of farmers' knowledge systems and women seed keepers.

The enforcement of monopoly rights through IP in agriculture goes against the fundamental principles of peasant agriculture, which is premised on the sharing of seed wisdom and exchanging of planting materials. IP also raises costs of seeds and other agricultural inputs, driving farmers to seek loans. This lands them in debt and deepens agrarian crises.

The struggle to retain public stockholding for food security is also being challenged by developed countries at the WTO. Such opposition comes in the way of governments being able to make food accessible and affordable to our most food-vulnerable communities, many of whom are smallholder farmers. The Centre does not seem to want to fight it out in Argentina for a permanent solution.

The holding of the 'farmers' liberation parliament' outside Parliament in New Delhi is an unfortunate reminder of the fact that farmers' concerns are neither being adequately discussed by the law-making body nor being addressed by the executive.

The WTO matters, as well as FTAs/BITs that have any impact on our farmers, must not only be debated by the Centre, but also discussed with the states. No decisions about trade in food, farm and seed issues should be taken without discussions with farmers groups, state governments, the Union Ministry of Agriculture and sans any debates in the Parliament.

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