Commerce and industry minister Nirmala Sitharaman has said the move to suspend the chief negotiators’ scheduled talks in August on European Union-India Broad-based Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) was indeed “unilateral”, but not an “unconsidered or an instant decision”.
“The Prime Minister of India raised this issue during his visit to France. I raised it… Several joint secretary and secretary-level teams had laboured over the issue and continuously drawn the attention of European authorities for almost a year. But they did not revert back to us. And then came this ban without any reply to our questions,” Sitharaman told The Indian Express in an interview.
“I am glad the Prime Minister stood in sync with us that it’s not fair … especially for the India drugs and pharmaceutical sector which has received clearances from USFDA, obtained EU quality certification and were producing international quality generic drugs and selling at affordable prices for life saving diseases. What prompts the banning without even telling us the reason. The decision to not hold the chief negotiators’ meeting was taken at the highest level,” Sitharaman said.
The minister said India took up the issue of anomaly being raised by one French inspector who took the decision based on data inaccuracy in clinical trials, but did not consider the germane issue of drugs composition, potency or safety when the drugs are being administered to patients. “All these drugs were being used, are still being used. They did not have any negative impact on patients. Further two independent doctors — one from Germany and the other, I think from the Netherlands — went through the paper work, and they too were under the impression that the French inspector’s findings were not relevant,” she said.
In fact, the minister said she had even openly pushed for starting the negotiation BTIA with the European Union. “India had every intention to complete the negotiations at the earliest. In fact, to start the negotiation with the EU, I met their trade representative Cecilia Malmstrom during the WTO ministerial in Paris in June. I had fixed the date for the chief negotiators talks. I had also used every forum to clearly convey to the then EU Ambassador to India that I want the negotiations to move ahead,” she said.
When asked if this would adversely affect India’s bargaining power, particularly with EU-India Summit scheduled in November, she said, “You are right in saying so…but given the status quo — ban on export of 700 Indian drugs — I anyway had very little bargaining power.” Sitharaman, however, said, “I had not said I have called off the talks. I had only said it was not the right environment for the chief negotiators to meet then.”
The minister said she was still waiting for the EU to revert back to India and explain why the ban. “After we decided to cancel the chief negotiators’ meeting, they sent a letter stating that this (the decision to ban) was a regulatory decision. This is not a regulatory issue, even if it were so, we deserve an explanation,” she said.
Expressing concern over the continuous decline in exports over the last several months, Sitharaman said her ministry was engaging with sectors in an attempt to chart out short-term and medium-term remedies. “We are doing all that is required to make manufacturing easy. We are also helping states… But clearly, external factors are much more at play than our own. External demand has saturated, whether you are looking at European Union countries or countries to our east or our traditional markets. The demand is tapering across the world. Sitting here, we can’t pep it up elsewhere,” the minister said.
Currency was another issue the exporters are grappling with, she said. “The fall in Euro has not helped us,” she pointed out, adding these two issues contributed directly to the declining exports. Even sectors such as garments have not done well because small regional agreements in force elsewhere have impacted them.
The minister said that the department of commerce has now cast rules for interest subvention to various sectors. “This will help some of the affected sectors. While a budgetary allocation has already been made for interest subvention, the ministry had to finalise the rules. We have done it now, and will take it to the cabinet soon,” she said.
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