Manifesto for trade justice

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Forum against FTAs | March 2019

Manifesto for trade justice

Positions all Political Parties in India must take for the General Elections 2019 with respect to India’s Trade Policy India is a huge country with great development potential. However, for this potential to be realised, Indian people must gain equitably from development, and development must serve the best interests of our people, including our farmers, workers, fisherfolk, traders, local industries, etc. We cannot blindly be led by the interests of a few globally dominant countries and private corporations that want
access to India’s markets and consumers for them to exploit it at their will.
We must take the benefit of our domestic strengths and vitality for a domestic
economy led growth, and engage with the global economy on our terms, that are
relevant to the context and time. We must stay strong at the venues to negotiate
the dominant powers in trade, such as at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and
other free trade agreements (FTAs).

We must have a nuanced economic development strategy and path, that are
centred on safeguarding our people’s dignified earning and well being, while
engaging with the global economy. Public procurement has been successfully
utilised as one of the key policy tools to promote industrial development. This
must continue to be available to governments as an industrial policy tool. It is
essential that governments retain the policy space to regulate investments towards
employment generation, food sovereignty and sustainable development.
These issues are matters of life- and- death for the vast bulk of India – from
sugarcane farmers, small scale milk sellers and plantation workers to small scale
traders and service providers across India. People have now woken up to where
their interests lies vis- à - vis promoting large business interests in global trade
agreements, and are closely watching what stands political parties take on global
trade.

In this regard, we urge all political parties to urgently adopt the following positions
and commit to the processes presented below, marking a people- centric
development path, which is also respectful of the planet.

POSITIONS

1. NO ‘ NEW’ ISSUES IN WTO

India became a part of the global system of trade rules – GATT in 1948, even
before the Constitution of India came into force in 1950. Subsequently, India
joined 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 2
trade for trade’s sake. This means ensuring that long pending issues of
development that are now being sidelined, such as implementation issues and
reduction of agribusiness subsidies by the developed countries, should be
addressed.

It requires strong political will to stand up against other governments that are
pushing ‘new issues’, 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. One such new issue is e-
commerce; it is essential that the government not lose policy space and the ability
to build digital infrastructure and regulate the digital economy, even as its
developmental implications are being fully understood.

Amongst the pending issues, the public stockholding of food by countries like
India has been under attack at the WTO. Public procurement and stockholding of
food are crucial to preventing hunger and malnutrition, and ensuring the right to
food for all, and requires all WTO member countries to cooperate to arrive at a
permanent solution. If these are l eft unresolved, our public distribution system and
minimum support prices for small scale agricultural producers will remain
constantly under threat of being attacked through trade sanctions. This will put our
national food security at risk.

India must continue to put its force behind a multilateral forum for trade rules and
work towards a genuine reform of the WTO. Global problems need global
solutions. Instead of exclusively pursuing a multitude of bilateral, regional and
plurilateral trade negotiations that primarily serve corporate interests,
governments should seek to rebuild genuinely democratic multilateralism.

2. REJECT FTAs /BITs LIKE RCEP

India is currently part of several FTAs with countries like Sri Lanka, Singapore,
Japan and ASEAN. Large- scale trade diversion is taking place as imports from non-
FTA partners are re- routed through countries with whom India has signed FTAs,
flouting the Rules of Origin norms. Governments should maintain a right to utilise
rule- based trade remedies in order to defend local industries against unfair trade.
The Government of India (GoI) 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 16 countries in the Asia- Pacific region
including India that together cover half the world’s population. [1]

Launched in November 2012, the most recent round of offical talks took place in
February 2019 in Indonesia. Previously, the leaders’ summit was attended by the
Prime Minister himself indicating political endorsement from the highest office to
advance the RCEP negotiations.

‘Mega regional‘ FTAs, such as RCEP call for deeper liberalisation and market
access commitments going beyond the WTO rules result in loss of policy space.
This can affect ordinary peoples, such as workers, small farmers, fisher folk,
livestock keepers and agricultural labourers. In future FTAs, there should be no
agreements that threaten or put at risk domestic manufacturing, agriculture,
fisheries, MSMEs and cooperatives.

Some of the biggest risks in FTAs & BITs are Investor- state dispute settlement
(ISDS) mechanisms that attempt to by- pass local courts and justice systems. India
has already faced several arbitration suits leading to millions of rupees in damages.
Democratically elected governments must be free to conceive, adopt and
implement policies in the interests of their people without threat of being sued by
multinational corporations through unaccountable international arbitration
mechanisms such as the ISDS.

It is essential that any intellectual property rights (IPR ) regime facilitates
governments’ efforts to achieve sustainable development goals, and should not be
a hurdle in the process. For example, IPR have implications for seed freedoms of
farmers, when FTAs ask for higher & tighter IPRs over and above WTO TRIPS. This
goes against our existing domestic law – Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’
Rights Act, which guarantees farmers’ right to seeds. IPR also affect health rights
of people, especially low- income groups. India is a major producer and supplier of
affordable medicines. The government maintains ‘No TRIPS- p lus’ in all bilateral
FTAs, particularly with Japan, Switzerland, EU and US as they push for IPR chapters
that undermine generic competition and access to medicines. FTA talks should not
dilute or undermine public health safeguards in the Indian Patents Act. Moreover,
p ublic services should be excluded from the legally binding commitments under
FTAs.

Existing FTAs that India is a part of in the Asian region must be rationalised.
Moreover, we need an alternative regional approach, not only in South Asia but
the Asia Pacific region, which does not push so- called ‘free trade’ and investors’
rights at the cost of lives and livelihoods of people, and the life of the planet.

PROCESS

3 . STATE GOVERNMENTS MUST BE CONSULTED

Since trade rules deal with several matters, such as agriculture, which as per the
Constitution of India are State subjects, therefore 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 GoI
intends to take vis- à - vis the range of topics covered in FTAs like RCEP. Further,
state governments must have the right to shape trade negotiations based on the
needs and interests of their most vulnerable constituencies and populations.
Since the Central Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MoCI) is negotiating the
RCEP with directions from the Prime Minister’s Office, there are concerns that
even the Agriculture Ministry (MoA & FW) is not entirely aware of the status of the 4
talks on agriculture within the RCEP, and what trade- offs with respect to
agricultural trade have been put forward on behalf of India to be able to negotiate
better terms for India in other sectors, such as services. In such a scenario it is
imperative that the Departments of Agriculture in the State Governments ask that
the Centre institutionalise their involvement in any trade talks. In its Election
Manifesto of 2014 the current ruling party at the Centre had made a promise that
it would involve the state Governments in the promotion of foreign trade and
commerce.

4 . THERE MUST BE A PROCESS OF PARLIAMENTARY DEBATE

The signing of international or regional treaties should not be limited to being an
executive act. Moreover, the foreign policy establishment, which often plays a
critical role in signing FTAs/BITs to fulfill geo- political strategic objectives, must be
held accountable for the non- achievement of projected gains from such trade
rules. More importantly, the Parliament of India and state legislatures must be
informed and substantive discussions on the proposed treaties must take place in
both houses of the Union Legislature. 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. It must also be insisted
that on its own part, the GoI undertake an ex ante assessment of the likely impacts
of RCEP on different sectors. In many countries, unless the Parliament ratifies, such
FTAs cannot even become legally binding on that country.

5 . PEOPLES’ CONSULTATION IS NON- NEGOTIABLE

While FTAs are being negotiated, neither state governments nor citizens are made
aware of the content of these trade talks. Marginalised communities, including
women, get completely sidelined in trade talks. For example, we only know that
there are 24 chapters proposed in the RCEP. What will be the gendered impacts of
these provisions if they are implemented? Principles of Fair Trade are not
adequate to address all the concerns. The draft texts of the chapters are yet to be
made open. The proposals being put up by the Indian side ought to be known by
Indians. The present government announced a review of India’s existing FTAs in
June 2014. To date however, the review report has not been made public. It
should be made public so that people can assess the impacts of India’s existing
FTAs.

Over and above that the GoI must institutionalise transparency in the process of
India’s trade talks. The veil of secrecy over trade negotiations and the negotiating
texts should be removed, and a democratic process must be followed in trade
negotiations. This includes the proper consultation with trade unions, farmers and
fishers’ organisations, agricultural workers’ unions, dalit and Adivasi groups, and
representative bodies in different sectors. If FTAs/BITs are good for people, why
should they be kept ‘secret’?

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STAND FOR TRADE JUSTICE.

Footnotes:

[1Other countries in the negotiations are Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand, South Korea, and the ten members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) i.e. Brunei Darussalam, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand, and Vietnam.