The anatomy of a ban

  • 14/09/1996

emerging stronger and starker links between trade and environment have made the 1990s a momentous decade for environmentalists. The General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (gatt), which never explicitly alluded to environment, has evolved into the World Trade Organization (wto), a legally binding institution. The wto, in turn, has set up a committee on trade and environment to discuss and tackle related issues. The mechanism to settle disputes has also been strengthened.

The wto's clear guidelines regarding trade restrictions and sanctions are what give heart to India and other countries on which the ban on export of shrimps has been imposed by the us (Down To Earth , Vol 5, No 7). However, in trade and environment linkages, there is more than just this legal-institutional aspect; what is important is why the linkages have come up. This, in the case of the shrimp ban, implies that India should be more worried about two things: firstly, why is it not concerned about deaths of its turtles in the shrimp-farming process, and secondly, why does it have to wait for another country to come and point a finger at its process of production of a tradeable commodity.

It is incorrect for the us to impose a ban on grounds of an effect which is extra-jurisdictional in nature. Obviously, bringing up these matters at the wto is the business of the government. But it is also the business of the Indian government to protect the turtle, of which there are five endangered species in India. Instead of remaining limited to that of a ban which is incompatible to the wto , the issue acquires magnified dimensions in this context. It now involves a question of protecting our biodiversity.

Consumers the world over are now aware of the process by which shrimps are caught, and the impact this has on turtles. This 'demonstration effect' can play the role of a stick for practitioners of the devastating shrimp-farming methods. Additionally, India should see this trade ban as an opportunity and an indicator. It lays bare a chance for us to put a stop to environmentally unfriendly production methods, and to ensure that the trade which adds to our forex reserves, at least leaves our environmental reserves undamaged.

The last five years have witnessed many such trade restrictions prompted by environmentally unfriendly practices. The developing countries can very well argue that with the trimming of the tariff wall as a result of the Uruguay Round of gatt negotiations, developed nations are raising their non-tariff barriers and that their real aim is not to save turtles, dolphins or labourers who use azo-based dyes as the case may be, but rather to save their markets from cheap imports. However, this is only for the sake of argument. Why should developed countries not want environmentally friendly products? What argument will we put forward if India cannot export its shrimps tomorrow simply because consumers in usa wish to see a label on the package which says "These shrimps are turtle safe"?

True, the us should not impose its environmental priorities on India or Thailand. But do turtles figure nowhere on the Indian list of priorities? Are we not concerned about protecting this species? And is the only reason for this protection going to be the fact that if we do not do our bit, our exports will be affected?

Ideally, India should observe its own trade patterns, pinpoint exactly what its exports and their destinations are, survey the environmental effects of the product as well as its processes of production, and gear itself to improve those environmental conditions which are affected as a result of the production of a tradeable commodity. All this can be done only if the institutional mechanism in the country is coherent and there is a clear line of responsibility and authority.

In the issue under consideration, this has not been the case. While the ministry of environment says that it had put forth a notification for trawlers to instal turtle excluding devices (teds) almost two years back in 1994, the commerce ministry believes that the only problem that requires attention is that of the ban being wto-incompatible. In fact, till some time back, the ministry officials did not even care to worry about the turtles as long as most exports of shrimps were from the aquaculture areas and therefore were not subject to the ban. The food processing ministry, on the other hand, had issued some orders of its own for installation of teds.

Following the commerce ministry's advice, we directed our enquiries to the marine products export development authority (mpeda), which said that the information was confidential and could only be provided on special request. Unfortunately, till going to press, our request had not received an answer. It is time we stopped being defensive and turned proactive about our very own life support systems. We have been witnesses to the errors of industrialised nations. Those who do not learn from history are condemned to repeat it. The Indian government deserves no moral sympathy on this issue.

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