WTO: a mock battle

  • 29/11/2001

This fortnight the Indian delegation to the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation (wto) in Doha is going to stand out as the champion of the Third World, defending the poor of the world against the "rich man's organisation" in the words of our minister of commerce, Murasoli Maran. We would feel great if only there was less rhetoric and more substance in the Indian position. As usual, we are reacting to just about everything that is on the table and have little to offer, except the time repeated bleating about Northern injustice. Maybe at the end the Indians will come home "victorious" with some concessions on textile trade. The world may even agree to amend the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (trips) agreement to allow developing countries the right to manufacture "generic" drugs for national medical emergencies. But there will be another round of trade negotiations and just about everything the Indians objected to - from investment and competition to environment - will be part of the new deal.

Why do we end up losing so much and so often? Firstly, it is because we are just not serious about our negotiating position and take contradictory stands too often for anyone to believe us. Take the entire discussion on linking environment with trade. The Indian position has been to reject the very idea completely at the wto. Quite right, we would argue, and I am repeating. Environment is an unfair lever of power, as it can only be used by the rich to discipline the poor. On the other hand, environmental governance requires instruments which will check the environmentally errant industrialised North.

Secondly, our strategy is only to block the movement of the proposal on the table. Not to propose a new agenda. This means that we are successful in the short run but as the other side continues to push and push, the ground keeps slipping under us. At the end we are shouting a slanging match with ourselves as the other side has already gone to bed victorious.

In the case of environment in trade negotiations, wto had initially taken the position that importing countries had the freedom to choose their own standards in order to protect their own people's health and their own country's environment but they did not have the right to impose standards aimed at improving the health or environmental practices of exporting countries. The latter would amount to a kind of 'trade tyranny' and could be easily used for economic protectionism. The open issue was whether such standards could be imposed on exporting countries if a multilateral environmental treaty had been signed to this effect. It would have served our purpose to accept this provision and to firmly draw the line.

But we adopted our time-honoured strategy of prevaricating. As a result, pressures on wto from the environmental lobbies of the North have grown and the organisation has more or less caved in completely. Just last week, the wto's appellate body decided in favour of the us in the famous case of the turtles verses the shrimps. wto has accepted that the us was correct in taking unilateral action against another country - India, Malaysia and others - to protect the turtles, which us claimed were being killed in the process of harvesting shrimps. It accepted the extra-jurisdictional action of the us saying that as "turtles are migratory species" these animals must have been in us waters at some time. It has even accepted that trade can make a distinction between shrimps that are turtle-friendly - allowed to be imported - and those that are turtle-unfriendly - banned from imports. This destroys our position that trade cannot distinguish between products on the basis of the process used.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, we are losing the battle because we do so little at home. The Indian government contends that the trips agreement should be amended so that it includes geographical indicators for products like basmati or Darjeeling Tea. Perfect. But then why on earth has it taken the Indian government since 1999 to get its domestic geographical appellation bill ready?

It also says that the trips agreement must be made compatible to the Convention on Biological diversity (cbd), which recognises the need to protect and reward the knowledge of the poor, unlike trips, which only recognises the knowledge of the formal inventor. Again, a laudable position. But then, what does our great government do in India. It sits and sits on its national biodiversity act, which would have provided the framework to force users of the knowledge - both Indian and foreign - to recognise the contribution of the poor knowledge holder. Worse, the draft biodiversity act, is so unimaginative that it would do little to provide the bold framework needed to shake the "rich man" trips agreement.

It will be easier to flex our muscles if we are consistent and serious about what we want. We cannot be a heavyweight internationally with no legs to stand on in our own country. Maran says that wto should not try and be a "global government". We agree. But for that, Maran should also tell his prime minister and colleagues to start getting serious about the business of government.

- Anil Agarwal