Anand Sharma’s optimism on Doha talks not welcomed here


Business Standard (India)
By Rituparna Bhuyan & Niharika Chandola / New Delhi
June 18, 2009

Even as Commerce Minister Anand Sharma claimed the “impasse” over the Doha Round of world trade talks is “broken”, senior government functionaries familiar with the negotiations maintain nothing has changed since July 2008, when the dialogue broke down.

Meanwhile, political parties and civil society groups have expressed disquiet on Sharma’s comments.

In an interview with Reuters news agency, Sharma had said “There is much happening now. The impasse has been broken.” This view is being seen as a dilution from the tough stand taken by Kamal Nath, his predecessor in the previous government and known for his firm stand on issues related to the Doha talks, which have been on since 2001.

Government functionaries say the statement by Sharma is just an intent to take forward the Doha talks and does not reflect the actual negotiating status, where nothing has changed since the talks broke down in the mini-ministerial meeting on the Round at Geneva in July 2008.

Sharma’s comments on the Doha round have already evoked political reactions. “If this is true, we are going to take up the issue in a big way, as it completely contradicts the position of the earlier government,” said Sitaram Yechury, M.P. and politburo member of the CPI(M).

“It seems Sharma has bent his back to accommodate the wishes of the developed countries at the cost of interests of the marginal farmers of India. Not a single dollar of subsidies will come down if the round is taken forward in its current form,” said Bhaskar Goswami of Forum for Biotechnology and Food Security.

Sharma’s comments comes after only 20-odd days since he took charge of the commerce and industry ministry, responsible for dealing with the trade talks. His first international exposure to the Doha-related event was in Bali, where he attended a meeting of the Cairns group (a group of countries that want market access on farm products), as a special invitee.

During the conference, Sharma invited trade ministers of the G20- a lobby group in WTO- for a meeting in September this year in India to discuss the status of the Doha deal. The G20 countries – different from the other G20 grouping that met in the backdrop of the global economic crisis – comprises developing nations and have an interest in protecting their agriculture sector.

“This itself shows there has been no progress on Doha,” the government functionary added. Significantly, on the day he took over as the trade minister, Sharma had told the media,“Development agenda is central to the Doha Negotiations.”

Former trade diplomats, who had been actively involved with WTO-related issues, suggest the statement be seen as diplomatic posturing, as no country wants to be seen as the reason for a possible failure of the trade talks. After the Geneva mini-ministerial, the tiff between India and the US on issues related to emergency trade protection measures on farm products was perceived as the key reason for the stalemate.

But there were other crucial market access issues, including subsidies given by the US to its cotton producing companies and full market access on some industrial products, where WTO members could not converge on their ambitions.

WTO experts in India maintain Sharma’s statement should be seen in a different light. “The statement needs more understanding. It is made in the light of opening up world trade and remaining positively engaged in the multilateral trade talks and has been qualified by saying that our concerns are taken care of,” said Biswajit Dhar, director-general, Research and Information System (RIS).

Another factor is that the domestic economic situation in many developed nations, including the US, does not give political space to conclude a trade deal that will potentially increase market access and decrease subsidies on farm products meant for exports.

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