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വായന

03 December, 2013

Battle for food security at Bali

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

India goes into the ministerial meeting of the World Trade Organisation, beginning in the Indonesian island of Bali today (December 3), determined to fight to save its ambitious food security scheme from the subsidy limit imposed by an agreement with that body.

Under the WTO agreement on agriculture India is committed to keep the aggregate support under the food subsidy scheme to 10 per cent.

The Food Security Act, which came into force in September, provides for supply of five kilogrammes of grains a month to about 800 million people, classified as poor. WTO Director-General Roberto Azevedo, who was in India in October, said the measure would result in a breach of the 10 per cent cap and suggested that the issue be sorted out before the Bali meet.

India buys grains from farmers at minimum support prices for distribution to the poor. The developed countries consider this also as a form of subsidy.

India is not the only member which has problems with WTO’s rules relating to measures to help farmers and consumers. A coalition of similarly placed countries, styled as G33, was working together during the past one year to secure changes in the rules. It included China, Pakistan, Indonesia, Venezuela and several more from Africa and the Caribbean.

Intensive negotiations took place at Geneva to sort out the problems and come up with an agreed Bali package. Azevedo said last Tuesday they were very close to fully agreed texts but a final agreement could not be reached as “we stopped making the tough political calls”.

The following day the Least Developed Countries, most of them from Africa and the Caribbean, informed Azevedo that they had reached an agreement with the developed nations with regard to the text of the trade facilitation agreement and urged the other members to resolve the remaining issues which stand in the way of adoption of the Bali package.

The development encouraged Azevedo to declare he had not given up his efforts to secure a package and would continue his efforts to ensure a promising future for the multilateral trading system. However, it is not practical to hold substantive negotiations at the ministerial level as the WTO is a large body with 159 members.

The trade facilitation agreement aims at making world trade easier by simplifying and streamlining procedures. If it materialises, it will be the first major agreement in the WTO’s 19-year-old history. It is estimated to bring in gains worth $1 trillion in world trade.

To secure agreement to the Bali package, the developed world has offered India and other developing countries, as an interim measure, a “peace clause” which will give them four years’ time to comply with the norm of 10 per cent subsidy. Non-government organisations working among the poor and small farmers have asked the government to reject it.

While there are unofficial reports that the government is inclined to accept it, Commerce Minister Anand Sharma has asserted that what India is seeking is permanent immunity from farm subsidy breach. According to him, an interim solution is something that must hold good until a permanent solution is put in place.      

Before leaving for Bali, Sharma asserted that what India gives to its poor falls within “our right and that is insulated in its entirety from any multilateral negotiations or WTO negotiations.”

He added, “That is sovereign space and for India it is sacrosanct and non-negotiable.”

The WTO’s approach, determined largely by the developed nations that dominate it, is in conflict with that of the United Nations. In a report to the General Assembly last month UN Special Rapporteur on Right to Food Olivier de Schutter praised the efforts of governments across the world to adopt laws, policies and strategies to make access to food a basic right.

The WTO chief has been at pains to remind members that failure at Bali will have grave consequences. “We will fail not only the WTO and multilateralism,” he said. “We will also fail our constituencies at large, the business community and, above all, the most vulnerable among us.”

On their part, the WTO and the business community must recognise that the global order cannot be sustained for long by keeping large sections of the world’s population in poverty. India is home to one-third of the world’s poor and its responsibility to help boost the global economy cannot override its obligation to safeguard its poor. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 3, 2013.

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