The South Solidarity Initiative and Focus on the Global South co-organised a workshop on Free Trade Agreements (FTAs) and Agriculture at the All India Thematic Social Forum in Hyderabad on July 31st, 2016. Mr Afsar Jafri, Focus on the Global South and Forum against FTAs, made a presentation on the impact of trade, particularly of FTAs, on agriculture. Prof Ramanamurthy, Hyderabad Central University, moderated the ensuing discussion.
Mr Jafri began by saying that while civil society in India is familiar with WTO processes and negotiations due to decades of sustained advocacy, it remains largely uninformed about FTAs, despite the fact that these agreements fulfil the same objective as the WTO but to an even higher degree of liberalisation.
India has signed ten FTAs to date and it is estimated that 30-35 FTAs are in the pipeline. But the process of negotiation is extremely opaque as unlike in the WTO no texts are made available to the public. In fact, the legislature and state governments are also usually in the dark as there is no process of ratification followed in India. Moreover, stakeholders’ consultations, if held at all, are confined to industries and businesses.
With agriculture being a key issue in India where 60 per cent of the population is directly dependent on it for livelihood, any efforts to liberalise trade in agriculture need to involve appropriate consultative mechanisms.
Mr Jafri further said that in the WTO certain provisions such as the proposed Special Safeguard Mechanism (SSM) and Special Product provide safeguards and recourses. But when it comes to FTAs, tariffs are the only mode of protection yet they are aggressively slashed by countries in order to promote trade. For example, the duty has been cut by 90 per cent on all 700 tariff lines in India under the ASEAN FTA as well as under the proposed EU FTA.
The rationale given for this is greater reciprocal market access for Indian exports. But Indian exports face several non-tariff barriers such as Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS). Moreover, developed countries continue to extend trade-distorting domestic subsidies which further disadvantage developing countries. For example, from 1995 to 2003, the US provided close to USD 90000 billion as domestic subsidy and then started dumping cotton in the international market, leading to a crash in global prices of cotton, adversely affecting cotton farmers in India and African countries.
It seems that the Indian government is keen on pursuing and entering into these agreements to trade in specific sectors such as services. But the cumulative result has been that India is running a deficit in all but one FTA (India-Singapore FTA).
He also flagged the extremely important issue of Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) with respect to FTAs. While WTO allows both process patents and product patents, FTAs emphasise on data exclusivity of plant varieties. Hence in mega regional FTAs such as the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the UPOV system of plant variety protection which allows exclusive rights to the breeder of new seed varieties is being pushed. UPOV is much more regressive than India’s domestic law which allows farmers to save, exchange, and reuse seeds.
Another controversial provision of many FTAs is that of the Investor-state Dispute Settlement (ISDS), which grants investors the rights to sue a country’s government citing losses due to government interventions. This provision greatly undermines the sovereignty of national governments and places unbridled power in the hands of multinational corporations.
Therefore, there is an emergent need to raise awareness on FTAs and their impact on sectors such as agriculture and fisheries.
In the subsequent discussion, it was suggested that a campaign demanding a ratification process for FTAs in the Parliament should be conducted. It was also widely agreed that there is a need to reach out to local communities and farmers and demonstrate to them the linkages between agriculture and trade. Political parties too were proposed as a point of advocacy.