The recently concluded World Trade Organisation (WTO) ministerial was a damp squib. But India managed to stave off proposals that were detrimental to its interests in agriculture and fisheries. A disturbing takeaway from this meeting was that the efforts to throw in non-trade issues such as climate, gender, labour and sustainability have become more concerted than ever. The WTO seems to have strayed away from its original script of creating a level playing field between rich and poor countries for free and fair trade. Instead, it accommodates extraneous issues which are in the nature of non-tariff barriers that work against poorer countries. India and South Africa have rightly voiced their opposition.

On public stockholding for agriculture, the promise of finding a ‘permanent solution’ to this issue remains elusive as ever. This means the needling by the West will continue. India has repeatedly shown that the WTO formula for calculating subsidy for a crop is illogical and unfair. It was agreed in recent ministerials that public stockholding will be discussed in isolation of issues such as ‘market access’ or levels of tariff. Yet, efforts to introduce market access into the debate persist. In Abu Dhabi, leading farm exporters such as Brazil brought it up. What should be abundantly clear to all interested parties, domestic and global, is that India’s public procurement issues are entirely a sovereign matter. On fisheries, the lack of a level playing ocean, so to speak, between the small and big players is troubling. While large commercial vessels are more responsible than smaller ones for depletion of deep sea fishing stock, they wish to restrict the operation of India’s small fisherboats to about 20 nautical miles of the coastline. A lopsided draft in this respect was rightly rejected.

On other specifics, an EU initiative on ‘domestic services regulation’ backed by 72 countries managed to find its way into the WTO agenda. The OECD has already introduced regulations in this respect and wants the world to adopt the same. Whether the EU has managed an agenda coup is hard to say, except that the GATT Agreement on Services is already in place and can be cited as a precursor. The same cannot, however, be said of an initiative by China to introduce ‘Investment Facilitation for Development’, which was defeated by India and other countries. The moratorium on customs duties on e-commerce has been extended by two years. India has been pragmatic here by conceding ground.

India needs to build alliances at the WTO. China now stands on the other side in the divide between the developing and developed world. India needs to work out the implications of the divergence between the agendas of the FTAs in the pipeline which include non-trade issues, and its position on the same at the WTO. Indeed, that divergence seems to be the story for the whole world, casting a shadow on the WTO’s raison d’ etre.