After the Indo-US Nuclear treaty, international trade is what the UPA-2 has made it a prestige issue. The Union Cabinet last week cleared the way for signing the Free Trade Agreement (FTA) with the Asean countries. And this happened depite serious reservations voiced by the Defence Minister A K Anthony, the Law Minister Verappa Moily, and their colleague Mr Vayalar Ravi.
The Kerala government has also protested against the decision to go ahead with India-Asean FTA. You can read the new report at http://www.hindu.com/2009/07/26/stories/2009072654060400.htm
Anyway, you have to read this in conjunction with another report pertaining to WTO. The Times of India (June 19, 2009) under the headline Govt may dilute stand at WTO didn't come as a surprise to all of us who have following UPA's stand on international trade agreements. The Washington dated report said: India has indicated that it may dilute its stand on market access for foreign farm products in an effort to breathe new life into the WTO Doha Development Round trade talks that were stalled due to New Delhi's previously strong opposition on the issue.
Well, we all know that Anand Sharma has been inducted as Commerce Minister with the specific purpose of
getting the Doha Round passed without any more hiccups. Mr Anand Sharma is faithfully on the assigned job.
The India-Asean FTA negotiations were held up for nearly two years, and was to be signed in Dec 2008. The Summit to be held in Thailand was postponed to February 2009, and by that time India was getting into the election mode. The UPA therefore deferred any decision on it. Returning back to power, the UPA-2 minus the left parties feels comfortable to sign in an unjust agreement. What had held up the negotiations were objections from Indonesia and Malaysia which wanted India to cut tariff on items like crude palm oil, pepper, tea, coffee and refined palm oil.
Strange is't it that smaller countries like Indonesia and Malaysia can hold up negotiations with India? They know what they want. But I doubt if India knows what is good for its national interests. Earlier, Atal Bihari Vajpayee had given in to the demand of Malaysia and Vietnam to lower tariffs on palm oil and spices, respectively.
Mr Anthony's concerns too related to the influx of these commodities into Kerala, which could play havoc with the State's economy. According to him, the agreement will adversely impact workforce employed in traditional sectors like coir, marine products, cashew industry, pepper and natural rubber. Anyway, the Prime Minister Dr Manmohan Singh is learnt to have downplayed the threat using the China card. Sources told me that he listened to the objections raised by Mr Anthony and Mr Moily but is believed to have impressed upon them the urgent need to sign this agreeement in the asbsence of which China will grab the Asean market.
The Prime Minister as we all know is a votary for the so called free trade. I remember at the time of the Indo-Asean negotiations, he had before a round of negotiations held in Kaula Lumpur, told the Indian negotiating team to "just go and sign". This was unusual considering normally the Cabinet tells the negotiators the upper limit to be kept in mind while negotiating, as to how much can be 'sacrificed' during negotiations, but the negotiators were left speechless when they were told to "just go and sign."
I doubt if the UPA President Sonia Gandhi knows this. I think the nation has forgotten that only a few years back Sonia Gandhi had written a letter to the Prime Minister (that was deliberately leaked to the media) telling him of the dangers of accepting the agreement, and the damage it would cause to Indian agriculture and food security.
Indian agriculture is surely under an unprecedented attack from both both within and outside the country. You have already seen my earlier blog on Tamil Nadu government's decision to bring in a new legislation barring the non-agricultural graduates (including agricultural graduates who graduated from outside the State) to train and educate the farmers. This is ostensibly to stop the spread of organic farming and to uproot the growing opposition to the spread of GM crops. In Andhra Pradesh, the government is bringing in a cooperative system for farmers which actually would push them out of farming. We will talk about it later.
Thanks to the efforts of successive government's, Indian farmers are being pushed out of agriculture. This is what the World Bank had been suggesting for long. The India-Asean FTA is only one of the means to destroy domestic agriculture. You have a number of such regional agreements in offing. Watch out for this space.