A number of farmer organisations, trade unions, livestock and fisheries groups and civil society bodies have written an open letter to Commerce Minister Piyush Goyal stating that most of them had not been consulted on the on-going negotiations for the proposed Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) pact and expressed concerns that their concerns may not have been taken on board.

The representatives of various organisations and individuals from across the country, who signed the letter, demanded that the on-going negotiations be put on hold till consultations are conducted with those left out including small farmers, fishing communities, dairy keepers, fruit and vegetable growers, tribal populations, trade unions and other marginalised sections of society.

They also asked for the key representations made in the consultations that the government has had with industry be made public.

The RCEP is a mega trade agreement being negotiated between 16 countries including the 10-member ASEAN, India, China, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand. Once implemented it would lead to zero-duty imports on most products between the participating countries.

Referring to media reports on the Department of Commerce’s assertion that it held over 100 consultations across the country over the last six years to gather reactions to the proposed RCEP, the letter said that it was misleading on two accounts.

“On one hand, internal briefings and inter-ministerial consultations form a significant part of these so called stakeholder consultations, and on the other hand, the only stakeholder that has been consulted is the industry,” it said.

The complainants further said that despite there being evidence to show that the lives of people at large can end up getting traded away through free trade pacts such as the RCEP, their participation during the negotiation process has not been elicited.

While the Indian industry is most apprehensive about increased competition from China once import duties are eliminated or reduced, Indian farmers and dairy producers are additionally concerned about cheap imports from New Zealand and Australia that they fear could destroy their livelihoods.

While Goyal recently said that national interest and domestic industry would be protected, the petitioners want to know exactly how. They have demanded that the government should make the negotiating positions, including in vital sectors like food, farm and pharmaceuticals, known to the people of India and also share the status of the talks as of date, particularly after the recent ministerial meeting in Bangkok.

Most RCEP members want the negotiations to be concluded by the year-end and there is immense pressure on India to play along.