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'A setback for developing countries'

Published : Nov 24, 2001 00:00 IST

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Prakash Karat, Polit Bureau member of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), points out that there is little to celebrate in the outcome of the fourth Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in Doha as despite India's wish that the rules and policies of the Uruguay Round must be implemented in a fair manner, new areas for the next round have already been charted out. India lost out on several key areas, including environment, labour and textiles, and failed to emerge as the leader of developing nations, he said. Excerpts from an interview he gave Naunidhi Kaur in New Delhi:

How do you look at the overall outcome of the WTO Ministerial Meeting?

The WTO Ministerial Meeting was a success as far as the developed nations are concerned. They have been successful in pushing forward their agendas. Despite the resistance put up by the Indian delegation and some other countries, Doha has been a setback for developing nations. Developed countries, led by the United States, have bulldozed their agenda of strengthening their economic influence over the developing world, thereby undermining the sovereignty of independent countries.

What are the obvious losses for the developing countries that will directly affect the next round of talks?

The agenda for the new round has already been finalised in the final Declaration. This is obvious from the establishment of a Trade Negotiating Committee and the declaration that negotiations will be treated as a single undertaking. Moreover, the final draft clearly recognises the case for a multilateral framework in areas like investment and competition policy. Thus, what has been achieved by the developing countries is a temporary reprieve.

Negotiations setting the parametres of agreement in the areas of investment and trade and competition policy will be initiated forthwith but they will be termed as clarifications. The formal term of negotiations will be applied to these areas only at the fifth session of the Ministerial Conference, two years later.

India entered the Doha meeting with some strong statements. Commerce Minister Murasoli Maran said the "WTO is not a global government and should not appropriate to itself what legitimately falls in the domain of national governments and parliaments." Did India's conduct at the conference belie such statements?

We appreciate the resistance put up by Mr. Maran but why was he not successful in his efforts? The Indian viewpoint was that before going in for a fresh round and opening up new issues, the WTO had to examine whether the existing rules and policies flowing from the Uruguay Round were fairly implemented, especially in the removal of direct and indirect tariff barriers in agriculture by developed countries.

In Doha, Mr. Maran did put up resistance. However, the real question remains why he did not succeed as he should have. This is for two obvious reasons. First, the wrong methods adopted by the Indian government. In the last three years, the BJP-led government has gone out of its way to adjust to the demands of developed countries. This has been more than obvious in the insurance sector. Even before it had become a part of the WTO rules we had opened up insurance to foreign companies. The bottom line is that we have been going overboard to try and appease the developed countries. This has undermined our credibility as a consistent force. We lost the battle in India much before we began our fight in Doha. Second, we did not do enough home work to rally the multi group formation comprising the African-Caribbean-Pacific economies, the least developed countries and African countries. So the credibility of India in creating a bloc of resistance or leading other countries was undermined.

Do you say that India's stand received a jolt in the final declaration?

Yes, largely this has been the case. Moreover, even gains in areas like the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) agreement and on the question of access to cheap medicines have been marginal. No doubt, the WTO has been forced to take note of the hostile global reaction to the inhuman effects of the TRIPS accord. A separate declaration on TRIPS and public health has been issued that clarifies that TRIPS allows the use of compulsory licences for drugs that are required to meet public health emergencies. This means that in public health emergencies you will be allowed to violate the TRIPS agreement as far as patents are concerned. This is not a great victory.

By circulating a separate draft on the TRIPS issue and not incorporating it in the draft Ministerial text, the attempt is clearly to ensure that the basic TRIPS agreement is not tampered with. The wider issue of TRIPS constricting the development and dissemination of technology in general at the cost of public welfare and development has remained untouched. Similarly, in the areas of textiles the U.S. refused to budge.

So in the end we did not get much in Doha. All that we have got are assurances that until the next Ministerial round we can fight for modalities. This in no way means that India's viewpoint has been accepted. All that it points to is that we need to fight better. We cannot claim Doha to be a victory.

The declaration contains stronger language than India would have wanted on the subject of environment. What will be the repercussions of this on India?

There are difficult days ahead for India in this area. The final draft brought in the issue of environment and labour standards. The October 27 draft contained the formulation that the ILO (International Labour Organisation) is the body for substantial discussions on labour issues. The final statement deleted all references to the ILO indicating it can be taken up at a later stage by the WTO. Now, environment and labour will be used by developed countries to raise non-tariff barriers in order to protect their markets against exports by developing countries.

How do you see the future of the WTO and the multilateral trading system, particularly in the context of the global economic slowdown?

The world economy does need a multilateral trading system. However, the WTO is clearly not standing up to the task of being such a body. The countries that represent the most powerful capitalist States have monopolised it. As a result, the WTO has become undemocratic and seems happy to work at the behest of the richer countries. Worse still, the built-in mechanism of the WTO seems to militate against the poorer countries. The truth of the matter is that as long as WTO remains a votary of free trade it will work against the economic interests of the poorer countries.

This is an area for fight. We have to put up opposition against the iniquitous world order sought to be imposed through the WTO by the capitalist powers. The good news is that this does not seem to be a permanent phenomenon. We are heading for a worldwide recession, which started much before the September 11 World Trade Centre attacks. To a considerable extent this recession has beaten the proponents of free trade. It has also made it clear that the WTO needs to be democratised. The majority of the countries in the WTO are not benefiting from it. Instead, it seems to be eroding their sovereignty further. Hence, if the WTO functions in this way it will be a source of more serious conflicts in the future. There is the necessity to fight these trends and reverse them to make the WTO more democratic.

What do you think of India's credentials as a leading member of the developing countries bloc in the WTO? Has it succeeded in articulating the interests of these countries well enough and in maintaining a certain degree of unity within the ranks?

Doha made it clear that this has not been possible. We have clearly lost the standing that we once enjoyed in Third World countries. In Doha we tried to live up to our past image of a unifying force but we have not been successful in our efforts. There are several reasons for this. We should have worked out a realistic approach of first identifying the key issues on which we could have taken a stand and then rallied for support. We did not do that. Instead, we ended up showing our double standards whereby in our own country we succumbed to the pressures of finance capital and as the Doha meet approached we started saying that we are going to take a firm stand against the WTO.

(This story was published in the print edition of Frontline magazine dated Nov 24, 2001.)

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