A manifesto for trade justice

While trade policies have far-reaching implications on people’s lives and livelihoods, political leaders remain largely ignorant of the trade agreements that India is part of or is negotiating. Worse, very few political parties have clear thought-out positions on the subject.

People are waking up to where their interests lie vis-à-vis promoting large business interests in global, regional or bilateral trade agreements and investment treaties, and are closely watching what stand political parties take on them. In view of the Lok Sabha elections, it is important that parties understand areas related to trade rules and form considered opinions on them.

Developmental vision

There must be a vision for development of the country that precedes any trade policy. India is a huge country with great development potential. However, for this potential to be realised, all Indian people must gain equitably from development, and development must serve the best interests of farmers, workers, fisherfolk, traders, etc.

We cannot be blindly led by the trading interests of a few globally dominant countries and private corporations that want access to India’s markets and resources for them to exploit at their will. It is time for a people-centric development path, which is also respectful of the planet.

India is part of the global system of trade rules, having joined the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) in 1948, and then the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 1995. The membership of WTO has not brought significant gains to large sections of the Indian population.

Any government in power must insist on trade as a means for development and not trade for trade’s sake. This means ensuring that long-pending issues of development that are now being sidelined at WTO, such as reduction of agribusiness subsidies by the developed countries, should be addressed. Among the pending issues, the public stockholding of food by countries like India has been under attack at the WTO.

It will require strong political will to stand up against other governments that are pushing ‘new issues’ like e-commerce, of greatest interest to developed countries, in the WTO, while they show no real commitment to address the pending development-oriented concerns raised by developing countries. India must continue to put its force behind a multilateral forum for trade rules and work towards a genuine reform of the WTO.

Revisit FTA/BIT

India is currently part of several bilaterals with countries like Japan, South Korea, Sri Lanka and Singapore. There must be an honest assessment of what India has gained and lost in the bargain.

Large-scale trade diversion is taking place as imports from non-FTA partners are re-routed through countries with whom India has signed FTAs. India should maintain a right to utilise rule-based trade remedies to defend local industries against unfair trade.

The government is also negotiating several new FTAs and bilateral investment treaties (BITs), which warrant urgent intervention. The Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) is one such proposed trade-cum-investment treaty being negotiated between the 10 Asean countries plus six in the Asia-Pacific region, including India, that together cover half the world’s population. ‘Mega regional’ FTAs, such as RCEP, call for deeper liberalisation and market access commitments going beyond the WTO rules resulting in loss of domestic policy space.

Consult states

Since trade rules deal with several matters, such as agriculture, which are as per the Constitution ‘state subjects’, it is imperative that state governments are involved in the decision-making on trade. They must have all the information on the issues being negotiated in trade talks and the positions that the Government of India intends to take vis-à-vis the range of topics covered in them.

Further, state governments must have the right to shape trade negotiations based on the needs and interests of their most immediate constituencies, vulnerable populations and sensitive sectors.

Transparent, democratic

The signing of international or regional treaties should not be limited to being an executive act. Also, the foreign policy establishment, which often plays a critical role in signing FTA/BITs to fulfill geopolitical objectives, must be held accountable for the non-achievement of projected gains from such inter-country rules.

More importantly, Parliament and state legislatures must be informed and substantive discussions on the proposed treaties must take place in both Houses of Parliament. This is the only way to have elected representatives across parties engage in the process. In fact, the Centre must facilitate public consultations with people of all the states. In many countries, unless the Parliament ratifies, such FTAs cannot even become legally binding on that country.

The government of the day must institutionalise transparency in the process of India’s trade talks. If FTA/BITs are good for people, there is no reason to keep their contents ‘secret’.

(The writer is a Delhi-based legal researcher and policy analyst)

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A manifesto for trade justice

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