A week after taking charge as the new Commerce and Industry minister, Suresh Prabhu is learnt to have reached out to his predecessors in the trade ministry, including those who handled the ministry under the UPA government. The outreach effort is aimed at taking inputs of all those who firmed up and led India’s trade negotiations in recent years, ahead of the upcoming mini-ministerial conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) on October 9-10 in Marrakech and then the crucial Eleventh Ministerial Conference in Buenos Aires slated for December 11-14.
A source close to the development confirmed that Prabhu has communicated with former Commerce and Industry ministers, including Anand Sharma and Jairam Ramesh, and hopes to gain from their experience ahead of the crucial multilateral meetings at Marrakech and Buenos Aires.
Immediately after taking charge as minister of Commerce and Industry on September 4, Prabhu hit the ground running, attending the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) ministerial meet in Manila in the Philippines. Having met around 20 ministers from different countries, h is learnt to have resisted pressure for committing to greater market access at the RCEP ministerial meet.
While the trade ministers will meet again in Manila in November for the negotiations, a source confirmed that India has communicated that as it needs to protect the interest and sensitivities of industry and agriculture, it is not ready to commit to tariff elimination on a number of items that other members are pushing for. Prabhu is slated to go to South Korea shortly for negotiations on tariff elimination on various items for countries with which it does not have free trade agreements.
For Prabhu, there are several challenges ahead, including the task of making headway in negotiating free trade deals with China, Japan and Australia at a time when countries around the world, including US, are turning hostile towards free trade. He will also have to show his negotiation skill on bilateral FTAs that India is negotiating with Canada, the European Union and Australia.
Another issue that may come up would be to find a permanent solution on excessive expenditure on food security. Developed and developing countries had, at the Bali meet in December 2013, cobbled together a “peace clause” (to be in force till 2017) which stated that no country would be penalised for any excessive expenditure on food security programmes even if it breached the limits of WTO Agreement on Agriculture. However, India took a stance that the Trade Facilitation Agreement would be signed only when it is made clear that the peace clause will remain in force till a permanent solution is worked out to which other countries also agreed.
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