Frontline Volume 18 - Issue 24, Nov. 24 - Dec. 07, 2001
India's National Magazine
from the publishers of THE HINDU

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Of fighting and winning

Interview with Murasoli Maran.

Murasoli Maran used to write movie screenplays, said The Wall Street Journal, and as India's Commerce and Industry Minister, he scripted a thriller. Back in New Delhi after a hectic six days in Doha, when he managed from beginning to end to thwart the quick acquiescence and easy consensus that the rich nations demanded of the poor nations, Maran spoke to Sukumar Muralidharan about his impressions of the WTO's mode of functioning, its future work programme, and its credibility. Excerpts:

What is your overall sense of the Doha Ministerial conference, after a couple of days of stocktaking?

Generally speaking, India has kept up its position in spite of an adverse situation.

But on the implementation issue which was India's main platform before the conference, is there a sense that it could have done better?

We got what we wanted. On textiles, there is a wrong impression going around. We wanted to advance the growth in quota levels from January 1, 2002 to January 1, 2000. It means basically a further increase in quota levels. We wanted this right now. They said it is an amendment in the textiles agreement. But this will now be examined by the Council on Trade in Goods. So it has been postponed, not denied.

Was it generally agreed that the advancement of quota levels from 2002 to 2000 required an amendment to the agreement? Or was it merely a question of raising the floor?

In the agreement, the possibility of an increase of quotas has been mentioned. So we wanted to make use of this to get an increase. This was one of our efforts on the implementation issue. In negotiations we know some things are not possible. So we used this as a bargaining chip.

In what sense was it a bargaining chip? What did you seek to gain by pushing this issue?

You see, in this kind of multilateral negotiations one cannot say whether we have won totally. At the same time we have to fight for our national interest. Here nobody can accept failure. Two situations are possible. At best we can win, at worst we can get a win-win situation. Here I would say in almost all areas we have a sense of satisfaction that we have won.

For example, in an Olympic race if you claim to have won, you should be able to produce a gold medal. Our first gold medal is on implementation issues. Previously, the developed countries were closing their eyes to this. Then they said that this is a renegotiation, we cannot look into it. Finally, the entire world agreed that there are implementation issues which we must address.

The second gold medal I would say is the declaration on public health and TRIPS. You know for example, the Nobel laureate (economist) Joseph Stiglitz has stated that free-trade WTO style is like the Opium Wars, and it allows multinationals to fleece the poor countries by charging usurious prices on branded medicines. Professors (Jagdish) Bhagwati and T.N. Srinivasan have said in a recent research paper that because of patents a massive rent transfer takes place from developing to developed countries, to the extent of $8.3 billion, of which $5.3 billion goes to the U.S. alone. Therefore, because of public pressure and more so because of an initiative taken by India and Brazil, along with 55 African countries, the WTO had no other go but to stop this. The declaration on TRIPS is a landmark declaration.

Nomenclature may not be important, but does all this constitute a new round of negotiations?

Even (the E.U. Trade Commissioner) Pascal Lamy has said that you can call it a round by some other name. The important points are: what are the issues? What are the contents of the negotiations?

Industrial tariffs, for instance, have been targeted for a further round of reductions.

There is already a built-in agenda for the WTO (to address this issue).

But India has a large number of unbound tariff lines, which we will now have to accept binding commitments on

Naturally. And not only that, we will also have to deal with tariff peaks and escalation. Now if we get an advantage in these two areas, we can (bind and reduce our tariffs). For example, right from Dr. Manmohan Singh, all Finance Ministers have assured Parliament that they will bring down tariffs, because our tariffs are among the highest in the world. In last year's Budget, Mr. Yashwant Sinha said that within three years we will bring down our tariffs to East Asian levels. Therefore I do not think there is any difficulty in that.

Now when you are undertaking negotiations on binding tariffs, would the current level of applied tariffs constitute some kind of a ceiling?

These have not been decided. These are meant for the detailed negotiations. The declaration does not talk about it.

What has been the reaction from industry to this aspect of the Doha Declaration?

I think all Chambers of Commerce have welcomed it. Single-handedly India forced the postponement of all the four Singapore issues.

Till the evening of November 13 the least developed countries, the Africa Caribbean and Pacific grouping and the Africa bloc were all seemingly opposing the Singapore issues. What happened subsequently? How isolated was India on the following day?

Well, I don't want to say anything about this because every country has got its own interests. We were isolated on the Singapore issues. But we fought and we won. Our share in global trade is 0.7 per cent. In spite of that we managed to fight and win. This only means that we should make India economically stronger.

So were you isolated on the Singapore issues all through the conference or only on the morning of November 14?

I do not want to go into that. Single-handedly we fought and won. Because of that, in spite of 36 hours of non-stop negotiations, we maintained our position. And after we said that we will not join the consensus, the session dragged on for 18 hours. And we had our way.

So half-way through the final plenary session India said that it would not be part of the consensus.

Our demands were not accepted. We were ignored and a final draft that did not reflect our views was given to us in the early morning hours of November 14. We were taken aback. Things we did not discuss were there. We were shocked. Therefore we put up a very strong fight.

So that is when they introduced a clause saying that an explicit consensus would be required at the next Ministerial Meeting before negotiations could begin on the Singapore issues...

That's right. We wanted to amend the draft, but finally a compromise was arrived at - that the chairman would give a suitable clarification in his speech (introducing the declaration).

Was there some degree of appreciation among the other developing countries of India's lone stand?

Definitely. Everybody was happy.

Why were they unable to take that position themselves?

I cannot explain their position.

Was there a lot of bilateral pressure and arm-twisting?

I cannot comment on this.

And there have been reports of some uncivil and undiplomatic language that the top brass of the WTO engaged in...

Not with me. Privately maybe, but not with me. How can they browbeat one billion people?

Coming to agriculture, does this Doha Declaration go beyond the negotiations mandated under the Uruguay Round?

The declaration talks about the phasing out of export subsidies. At the same time, our concerns have been noted. We have (exemptions) for food security and rural development, which may form some kind of a development box. And we have obtained special and differential treatment (for our agriculture).

What are the obligations imposed upon us by the clauses on environment in the final declaration? There is a study programme under way in the WTO Secretariat on trade and environment and this could be brought into the negotiations.

This has been going on since 1995 under the CTE (Committee on Trade and Environment). Moreover, the first and second (clauses) in the environment declaration are our demand. For example, the relevant provisions of the agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) - this means that they should include traditional knowledge, there should be no bio-piracy, there should be informed consent if they borrow or steal our traditional knowledge. And let us not over-react to environment. Already, environmental issues are being enforced by our courts and by non-governmental organisations. Our only worry is that this should not be used as a Trojan horse for protectionism. We should be very careful. This is a continuous process (of negotiations). We should be very vigilant and careful.

What comment do you have on the procedures followed? You made an early intervention for transparency, but was this requirement honoured?

You could say that I am not satisfied. You know in this kind of conference everything revolves around the final declaration, which contains ten pages. Why should we not have consultations beforehand? Why are you bringing in a surprise, just like producing a rabbit from a hat? In the early hours (of November 14) after several hours of negotiations, we are suddenly confronted with a draft and then the meeting closes. That was totally unacceptable. That is when we said that we are not giving our consent.

You mean to say then that the developed countries determined the whole tone and content of the declaration..

Developing countries, I would say, have no role in setting the agenda. A rules-based body is becoming a power-based body.

Has India made a difference this time?

Certainly. If you look at the last hour, we did not budge an inch.

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