Why Bharat must tell the WTO to go to hell
Update: So far, India’s Minister for Commerce and Industry has said what our farmers’ need him to say at the WTO ministerial meeting.
This is good news for our millions of cultivator households, and is also good news for cultivating families and communities in the countries of the South. This bloc must oppose without reservation and compromise of any kind the USA- and EU-led puppeteering of the WTO rules of agriculture to help their food-seed corporations.
The reaction in the corporatised media has been typical, with headlines like ‘Bleak outlook for WTO deal as rifts widen over food subsidies’. Reuters has reported that there are “deep divisions with only one day left to the end of talks” but that “India gains supporters for its stance on food subsidies” and also that “a Bali deal could benefit world economy by as much as $1 trillion”. We have no idea where these absurd numbers have appeared from concerning the alleged ‘benefits’ of the WTO, but foreign and Indian media have also reported the spiky warnings from the Trade Representative of the United States of America, Michael Froman.
He is reported to have said: “Let us not sugar-coat reality: leaving Bali this week without an agreement would deal a debilitating blow to the WTO as a forum for multilateral negotiations.” Froman and his government don’t (or won’t) understand that such an outcome is exactly what we want – no more WTO, for good and forever. He is also reported to have that if the WTO is finished “the unfortunate truth is that the loss will be felt most heavily by those members who can least afford it”. Froman is lying, for it is with WTO that farmers and cultivators in their millions have suffered grievously for a generation.
The Hindu reported that developing nations including India want a ‘peace clause’ (see a few paragraphs below for why we should have no such ‘peace clause’) “till a permanent solution is found on the matter for smooth implementation of the food security programme”. The Hindu report has quoted Sharma as having said that India was not isolated on the food security matter in WTO and majority of countries where over 75% people live are supporting New Delhi’s stand. “I would like to make this absolutely clear that we have not come here as petitioners to beg for a peace clause,” he was quoted as having said.
The section of foreign media that has long spoken for the USA-EU axis of agreement on WTO and its perverse agriculture rules has complained about what it calls India’s opposition. One such newspaper is the Wall Street Journal, which has reported that India “is angry over WTO rules that don’t allow it to move ahead with a massive food subsidy programme”, that negotiators have been trying to win over India by “allowing it to break those rules for four years before reducing the scope of its subsidies”. It needs to be said here (see more below) that an outside agency’s ‘rules’ are immaterial to what Bharat’s people need, and that there is no question of any agency, country, group of countries or foreign entity of any sort ‘allowing’ India to decide the manner of its service to its people.
Earlier: Our kisans and our farmers have no use for a WTO ‘peace clause’. Our households and families that squeeze their weekly budgets to buy their food staples have no place in their lives for definitions of ‘market distorting subsidies’. Our retailers and wholesalers and fair price shops which supply these households and pay our kisans for the food they grow are much too busy to bother with what ‘amber box’ and ‘green box’ mean, or with the Ninth Ministerial Conference of the WTO.
The question is one not of food sovereignty or the right to food alone, it is also one of our country’s sovereignty and of democratic principles to be respected. For the so-called ‘developed’ countries who are also WTO members, the government of India paying farmers a minimum support price to buy crops that can be stocked (as needed) or released into the Public Distribution System is a ‘market distortion’ and they have invoked all sorts of WTO regulations to show why it is. This is dangerous and must be firmly and finally treated as a threat to the integrity of the Republic of India and its citizens. Whether those who have been sent to the WTO Ministerial Conference (in Indonesia, 2013 December 03-06) to argue India’s case will do so in a manner that protects our kisans and our households is yet to be seen.
Food security, prices that balance the income of farmers and the needs of food-purchasing households, and the quantities involved are matters that lie between the people of Bharat and the government (central and state) that exists to serve us. It is not the business in any way, in any year and under any pretext, of any of the other 192 member countries of the United Nations or of any grouping from amongst them. It is not the business of any UN agency nor any multilateral and/or inter-governmental body or agency regardless of whether India is a member or signatory to any such group or entity. That is the meaning of the sovereignty that exists as the contract between citizens and the state, and that means between us and the government of the Republic of India.
What business does the WTO imagine it has in this matter? Consider its chief operating statement: “The World Trade Organization deals with the global rules of trade between nations. Its main function is to ensure that trade flows as smoothly, predictably and freely as possible.” Arrogant and entirely mercantile, the WTO is incompetent in the matter just described – food security in Bharat. Via Campesina, the worldwide small farmers’ and peasants’ movement, has said: “”After several collapses and stalemates in the negotiations, the WTO has found a way to revive not only itself but also to deepen the free trade liberalisation agenda and expand into areas not previously covered by trade.”
Are India’s named representatives at the Ninth Ministerial of the WTO saying so clearly and loudly so that the entire UN system and the WTO can hear? Here is an extract from the statement made by the Union Minister of Commerce and Industry, Anand Sharma, on 2013 December 02: “We cannot continue to have rhetoric of development agenda without even a reasonable attempt to address the issues which are of primary concern to developing economies. For decades, handful of farm lobbies of some countries have shaped the discourse and determined the destiny of millions of subsistence farmers of the developing countries. The massive subsidisation of the farm sector in the developed countries is not even a subject matter of discussion, leave aside serious negotiations.” This position may be useful, but we have to wait and see how it is developed between now and the end of this Ninth Ministerial.
That it may not be developed is already hinted at, for the same minister has also said: “It is therefore difficult for us to accept an interim solution as it has been currently designed. As a responsible nation, we are committed to a constructive engagement for finding a lasting solution. But till such time that we reach there, an interim solution which protects us from all forms of challenge must remain intact.” The ‘interim solution’ is what has popularly been called a ‘peace clause’, by which is mean that the use of measures to procure foodgrains by developing countries to promote food security would continue to be deemed illegal but WTO members would not go into the process of dispute settlement for a certain period.
Moreover, this ‘interim solution’ will be effective for only four years (that is, less than a single of our Plan periods) and Sharma’s saying that “we are committed to a constructive engagement for finding a lasting solution” is no indicator that our representatives to the WTO will tell the WTO that our farmers, our crops and food and our prices is none of its business. As the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy has mentioned, a country might seek to use both purchases and sales of stocks to support a level of equilibrium in market prices that supports long-term development objectives.
The bloc of so-called ‘developed’ countries – the USA and some of its habitual crony countries, and the European Union, all of them having subsidised their agriculture heavily and steadily for 50 years – are holding up WTO ‘rules’ to say that if the price paid by our government is higher than the ‘external reference price’, the difference is considered a ‘trade-distorting subsidy’. And what is this reference price? The average international price of 1986-88! As anyone who has even a passing interest in food knows, true food inflation (which households experience) in most of the world has for the last six years been 10% and above. Fuel price inflation has been as much if not more. Fertiliser price inflation: ditto. It is the USA and (some) countries of the EU that have annually supported the cost of cultivation and held retail food prices low to the extent of half their agricultural GDP – which they today say is permitted under WTO rules, but that India’s crop procurement prices is a ‘market distorting subsidy’ that gets in the way of a ‘free market price’!
The concept of a ‘free market price’ is a mythical entity, Prabhat Patnaik has pointed out. “There are so many things that go into the price formation of any commodity, that to single out only a few of them as constituting ‘distortions’ and the rest as ‘non-distorting’ is totally arbitrary,” he has said. “This distinction which has been foisted upon the WTO by the advanced capitalist countries to serve their own interests, and imposed through it upon the entire world, is invidious for several reasons.”
But the WTO Director-General, Roberto Azevêdo, is considered to have as his priority the success of this Ninth Ministerial Conference in Indonesia (he warned WTO members in his inaugural speech this year that the “world will not wait for the WTO indefinitely” – what he thinks such a waiting world is was not clear, but our kisans want no WTO in their lives). [The International Centre for Trade and Sustainable Development has more.]
Several farmers’ organisations, trade unions and peoples’ campaigns in India have resolved to support the Indian government’s position to not trade away national food security. The group welcomed the decision of the Indian Cabinet on 2013 November 28 November to reject any “peace clause” that does not guarantee a permanent solution. The peace clause has been widely opposed by the Chairs of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Commerce and Agriculture, the Left parties, and mass organisations, which include Bhartiya Kisan Union, Bharatiya Krishak Samaj, Bharatiya Majdoor Sangh, Focus on the Global South India, Right to Food Campaign, Shram Seva Nyas, South Indian Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Movements, Swadeshi Jagran Manch and Third World Network India.
Nonetheless, the danger we in Bharat have to guard against is both outside and inside. This year, India is an active and vocal member of the group of 33 countries (G-33) whose position is that the present WTO rules which constrain the ability of developing countries’ governments to purchase food from small farmers and stock them must be clarified or changed. But India is also a BRIC country whose ministers are doing all they can to allow foreign ownership of everything from banking to airports to defence to food. Hence this stance is hypocritical (as is India’s stance at the useless and totally compromised climate change COP meetings). Thus, the danger outside is how the USA (plus crony countries) and the EU employ Indian ministers to push through the WTO rules. The danger inside is that Parliament and state legislatures – which technically represent directly affected parties – are being by-passed while the interests of the corporate-financial elite (global, regional, national) are being protected.
It is this danger that has been referenced in the representation by 15 of the major farmer unions of India, including the Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) and the Karnataka Rajya Ryota Sangha (KRRS). The representation to Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said: “Forth-seven years after the green revolution was launched, India is being directed at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to dismantle its food procurement system built so assiduously over the past four decades. This ill-advised move is aimed not only at destroying the country’s hard-earned food security but also the livelihood security of over 600 million farmers, 80% of them being small and marginal.”
And that is why it is time for us to give our government the ultimatum – the world is not about trade but about people and the planet. Ours is not an agriculture in the service of the WTO’s murderous rules and our kisans will not abide being beggared. The crops grown to feed our households rural and urban and the prices set in the mandis and found in the kirana shops are a matter for Bharat. That is why it is time for us to face down the sly brokers in the WTO – and their masters – once and for all.