India was on course to block an agreement on new global customs rules at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) general council meeting in Geneva on Friday, with the government making it clear that it would not adopt the protocol on the Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA) without an assurance and visible outcomes on finding a permanent solution to its public food stock holding and subsidy concerns.
New Delhi has suggested that WTO should have “back-to-back” meetings for a permanent solution to food security issues, and review the progress on food stock holding and food subsidy issues, alongside the TFA, in October.
“India will find it difficult to support a protocol on TFA without an assurance and visible outcomes on finding a permanent solution on its public food stockholding issue”, Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told Lok Sabha in a written reply on Friday, hours before the general council of the WTO was scheduled to take up the ratification of the TFA protocol. The WTO general council meeting was under way at the time of going to print.
The general council is the highest decision-making body of the WTO. It was scheduled to take up the issue of TFA on Thursday, but deferred it on the apprehension that India would veto it. The TFA must be ratified by all 160 member nations of the WTO for it to come into force from July 2015.
During the ninth ministerial in Bali last December, WTO members had agreed on a package comprising an agreement on TFA, issues relating to agriculture and development.
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However, between January and June 2014, while 25 meetings of the preparatory committee took place on reaching a final conclusion on TFA, only two meetings were held — in March and June — on agriculture, a senior official said. India has now pitched for a joint conclusion of the Bali package.
New Delhi is of the view that the July 31 deadline for ratifying the TFA should be deferred until the WTO jointly concludes all the components of the Bali package including TFA, food security and development agenda. An Indian official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said there were reasons “emanating from capitals of some countries and in Geneva for us to believe that once TFA is harvested, the interest in the remaining part of the Bali package will be substantially diluted”, something which developing countries can’t afford.
“Timelines are sacrosanct, but not at the cost of lives of poor people. What is so great about a date which all of us fixed? Let us start work in right earnest and review it by October, let the committee of agriculture hold back-to-back meetings or hold a special session to find a permanent solution… Food security is not an esoteric issue, it is a real and relevant issue,” the official said.
For the Indian government, the livelihood of marginal farmers is a deeply political issue, especially in the light of stockpiling needs on account of the requirements of the Right To Food Act.
On whether India was blocking the deal, the official said there was “unnecessary scaremongering” that India’s stand would wreck the entire WTO process when, in the past, several deadlines have been missed in concluding what is called the Doha round of negotiations.
Sharp differences have emerged between the developed and developing countries over the TFA, which the latter group believes will benefit the rich countries. “We have signed it (TFA), we are part of it, but we are not feeling confident that the food security issue will get sorted out once the TFA is finalised,” the official said.
According to the official, India, along with countries like South Africa, had been urging that work should begin on finding a permanent solution. “The whole issue of food security has been raised by us several times. On July 2, when we saw TFA was reaching finalisation, we became alarmed because in these last six months any discussion on the Doha agenda has met with dilatory tactics,” the official said.