Two cheers

Updated on: Jun 19, 2022

FILE PHOTO: A logo is pictured at the World Trade Organization (WTO) headquarters ahead of the Ministerial Conference (MC12) in Geneva, Switzerland, June 12, 2022. REUTERS/Denis Balibouse/File Photo | Photo Credit: DENIS BALIBOUSE

India has not conceded ground at the WTO ministerial, but the gains are not very significant either

Commerce and Industries Minister Piyush Goyal was largely right in asserting that India stood its ground at the recently concluded WTO ministerial in Geneva. Whether it is fisheries, TRIPS, food stocks and trade or customs duty on e-commerce, it is pretty clear that India’s trade and livelihood rights have not been adversely impacted; in fact, some gains have been secured. The ministerial’s TRIPS resolution (based on the October 2020 ‘TRIPS waiver’ proposal put forward by India and South Africa) encapsulates how the meet went off on the whole — a story of a few hits and some misses for India. The resolution on TRIPS restricts the waiver on patents to Covid vaccines for a period of five years, leaving out diagnostics and therapeutics. Other forms of IPR such as copyright and trade secrets with respect to Covid have been left out. For those who argue that the TRIPS waiver proposal has been well and truly buried, it must be remembered that negotiations are about give-and-take. The fact that a patent waiver for Covid vaccines has been accepted as an emergency measure is a watershed; it sets a major precedent in dealing with future health contingencies. IPRs are a nuanced subject, where a compromise needs to be struck between rewarding innovation and ensuring technology transfer — and this nuance would become a feature of future talks.

On the issue of supplies for the humanitarian World Food Programme, for which no “export prohibitions or restrictions are allowed”, India has secured a concession — that a member country can “ensure its domestic food security in accordance with the relevant provisions of the WTO agreements”. However, this assurance, which is vaguely worded, pales in comparison to what was not achieved — namely, moving towards a permanent solution on the contentious issue of keeping subsidies on an exportable crop within the 10 per cent of its value, and allowing G2G transactions from food stocks. The freeze on customs duty imposition on e-commerce (surely, a US agenda item) continues, but Goyal has said that a future deal is in the works. India could use this as a bargaining chip in crucial areas such as agriculture. As for fisheries, India has rightly argued that its practices are sustainable, as its sector is more the preserve of small fishermen than large vessels (Chinese, Japanese, Taiwanese, among others) which trawl the deep seas, and are responsible for depletion of fish stocks. However, the subsidies these countries pour into this sector remain unchallenged, even as India has for now clung on to the right to support its own fisherfolk. The double standards here are glaring.

India has posed the right questions, be it IPR for pharma, agriculture or fisheries. The WTO hammered out a ‘deal’ after seven years, which suggests that it is back from the dead. But for multilateralism to work, an appellate body for disputes resolution must be set up at the earliest. There was no agreement on this aspect. As the world tries to put together new supply chains, the rules of multilateralism have become more important than ever. Even as India signs on to a slew of trade pacts, it must play a role in ensuring that the WTO remains an arbiter of free and fair trade.

Published on June 19, 2022
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