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Course correction in place before WTO meeting: India

LiveMint logoLiveMint 19-07-2017 D. Ravi Kanth

Geneva: Commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman on Wednesday said there is a genuine “course correction” in place for delivering results on mandated issues at the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) eleventh ministerial meeting in Buenos Aires in December.

She suggested that “lessons are learnt” from the previous Nairobi ministerial meeting in order to avoid “non-transparent” processes of taking decisions that exclude a large majority of members.

Sitharaman denounced the US Special 301 report in which India was listed in a priority watch list last month for allegedly failing to enforce intellectual property laws and creating trade barriers to US pharma companies. She dismissed reports that India gave an assurance to the US-India Business Council that it will not avail compulsory licences (CLs) for commercial or public health purposes.

During her first visit to Geneva, Sitharaman spoke to Mint after meetings with WTO chief Roberto Azevedo and the chairs of different negotiating bodies. “As things stand today the impression I get is that lessons are learnt from the Nairobi ministerial meeting (held in 2015)”, she said. The processes which have to be activated before the ministerial and leading to the ministerial and placing the ministerial declaration for ministers to consider it and agreeing it, have not worked before the Nairobi meeting. “It has now been corrected (and) as things stand between now and the Buenos Aires (those opaque processes) will not be repeated,” she added.

“I’m now optimistic that the course-correction is happening and a review meeting in Marrakech (in September or October for assessing the deliverables for the Buenos Aires meeting) is the first outcome for course-correction.”

As regards China and India joining hands at the WTO for adopting common positions on agriculture and other issues notwithstanding the sudden spike in tensions on the border issues, she said “I think and expect that meetings will happen on mandated items and if mandated items are going to be worked out in great detail then enabling activities like India-China paper (for eliminating trade-distorting domestic support for agriculture to the tune of $160 billion by advanced countries), the European Union’s paper (on farm subsidies) all of them will be taken up.”

On Monday, China and India jointly circulated a comprehensive proposal on the need to eliminate what is called Aggregate Measurement of Support as a prerequisite for addressing trade-distorting farm subsidies before Buenos Aires.

Commenting on ‘new issues’—rules for electronic commerce, disciplines for small and medium enterprises, and investment facilitation which are being aggressively pushed by several industrialized countries—she said India has rejected them.

About India’s inclusion in the US Special 301 report, she said, “It is a unilateral action and if I can say it is a crowbar, in putting somebody’s nose into a third country’s policy,” adding, “Nobody has a right to look into somebody’s policy area.”

“We reject this automatically, totally,” she said. “And second even while forming my IPR (intellectual property rights) policy, we made it absolutely plain that it is in the public domain and anybody can comment on it, and after that several delegations (from the US) met me. I told them to talk to the think-tank which has been appointed,” she said.

In a lecture on “reclaiming multilateralism” on Tuesday at the Graduate Institute, Sitharaman said only “developmental” outcomes based on the Doha Development Agenda will be able to strengthen multilateralism.

She said a permanent solution for food security for developing countries is an imperative for more than 800 million people who live in hunger and justified price support programmes for food security, saying there should be a lasting solution to the issue.

The Indian trade minister said all fixed and opaque tariffs on agricultural products must be converted into ad valorem equivalents based on the formula that was worked out in 2005.

Sitharman challenged the narrative advanced by industrialized and a few developing countries that negotiating binding rules on e-commerce would bring benefits to small and medium enterprises. Global e-retail platform owners use their considerable market power to the disadvantage of SMEs, in her lecture.

“Multilateralism as embodied in the WTO is at a cross-roads” because of threats rising from nationalist and “insular” economic policies that are paving the way for renewed protectionist measures, she said.

The commerce minister drew several markers for immediate improvements—including safeguarding the independent functioning of the appellate body and a single term of six years for its members to ensure independence.

In the face of growing sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures that invariably result in higher levels of protection, the minister called for strengthening the WTO agreement on SPS whose decisions must be based on scientific justification or scientific risk assessment.

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