August 01, 2017

Trade secrets

Trade secrets: Why we need a public discourse on RCEP talks

Why we need a public discourse on RCEP talks
As India gets ready for the crucial 19th round of Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership or RCEP negotiations this week in Hyderabad (July 24-28), one wonders how aware the people in general and the stakeholders in particular are, on the likely fallout. If you go by arguments put forth by activists, the RCEP would have far-reaching impact on the economy. They say, if ratified, the RCEP provisions could impact agriculture, manufacturing, e-commerce, services and pharma.
It’s not that no discussion had ever taken place. But it was largely confined to only one layer, keeping the majority out of the discourse. The opponents of RCEP compare this with the discourse that happened over other global trade pacts such as the WTO. Or, the Government has not done enough to make India discuss this.
The RCEP has 16 member countries — 10 Asean countries and six with whom it has free trade agreements. It aims at creating a free, common market place for the member countries, which are home for 3.5 billion people. India, home to over one-third of the RCEP population, holds the key as it offers the second biggest market after China in the group.
The People’s Resistance Forum against FTAs-RCEP feels that the manner in which the talks are being held is undemocratic and not inclusive. They are demanding that India withdraw from negotiations to safeguard its interests.
It alleges that the details of the agenda and provisions are kept as a secret from the public. Talks are being held behind the doors, giving little scope for the public to understand what is happening inside.
They fear severe harm to the interests of farmers, dairy industry and pharma sector as imports from developed countries could flood the domestic market. Small-holder farmers face the biggest risk as imports from developed economies could make them jobless.
They fear RCEP could impact seed sovereignty of farmers. Farmers’ organisations fear that dairy imports from Australia and New Zealand could flood the Indian market, putting the domestic dairy sector in serious trouble.
The States too have taken not much interest in the RCEP deliberations or its impact on the primary sector. Agriculture being the State subject, the States should have discussed the provisions in detail. Political parties too seem to have no clue on what is happening.
Still more surprising is the late realisation by the activists themselves. They began rallying farmers’ associations, trade unions and intellectuals a couple of weeks ahead of the conference. They are holding parallel meetings to explain the likely fallout of the talks.
Whether it is good or bad is a different issue but it is imperative that the RCEP should have been discussed in the public domain in detail, considering the scale of impact it would have. Complete absence of discourse in the public space is baffling, particularly when the crucial round of negotiations are being held in the country.
Considering the apprehensions and likely implications on the country’s economy and livelihoods of crores of people, the Government should put forth the RCEP agenda for discussion.
It must publicise the provisions of RCEP and what it would mean by joining a big free trade region. It will not only give them a chance to come out with suggestions, but will also help them prepare for such a regime.
(This article was published on July 23, 2017)

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