International pressure and the civil society

By Anil Agarwal
Published: Friday 31 December 1999

If there is any lesson that the Indian government needs to learn from Seattle it is that it must learn to work with its own civil society. While all our politicians and press commentators may remain focussed on economic issues like 'market access' and 'market control', it is ultimately the depth of democracy that will determine the quality of our economic development.

The Indian delegation in Seattle was reported in the Indian newspapers to be complaining that the protests organised by a gaggle of anti-capitalists, environmentalists and labour unions had taken place with the encouragement of the us government. In other words, Indian leaders present there were admitting that the us government was carefully using its civil society to push its own economic agenda. But back in India, no lesson had been learnt. While the Seattle meet was on, prime minister Atal Behari Vajpayee was telling the Parliament that the Indian delegation would be opposing, among several other things, the proposal to involve ngos in the deliberations of the World Trade Organization (wto) -- and in the name of protecting India's interests. The reason for this doublefacedness of the India government lies in the fact that the Indian politicians have still not yet learnt to deal with the country's own civil society. This is despite the bombastic claims of being the world's largest democracy -- claims which are true only in form but rarely in substance.

Even though communism and anti-capitalism may no longer be a subject of current international discourse, environment definitely is and labour interests cannot be wished away. It is true that linking labour and environmental standards in wto would act like a double whammy for developing countries. While wto trading rules would open up the economies of poor countries to foreign investment, products and services, Western-level labour and environmental standards would prevent the access of goods from poor countries to the Western world, thus, protecting jobs and companies in the latter (see p27: Everybody's a loser ).

It is not surprising that Western labour is worried about the unemployment effects of wto trading rules and wants to protect its jobs. But Western environmentalists have a double agenda. One set of environmentalists and social activists -- the Ralph Nader type -- are worried that wto trading rules will mean lowering the environmental and public health standards of the us -- something that they have fought for over the years. European environmentalists can easily see this for themselves. The manner in which the us is forcing open the European market to beef produced with growth hormones has angered millions in Europe because they do not trust the long-term health effects of this beef. A major fight looming between the us and Europe is over the latter's concerns, arising out of strong public protests, for genetically engineered food crops -- a product in which us corporations like Monsanto have a strong interest. The us has already forced Thailand using wto rules to allow the sale of foreign cigarettes.

But the second set of Western environmentalists and eco-imperialist interests include issues like the turtles, dolphins and tropical timber. They oppose wto because it stops the us and European governments from imposing unilateral restrictions on importing products that have been produced in a way that harms the endangered species and the environment. Since wto trading rules do not allow such unilateral impositions, the us government has lost all such appeals in wto -- the dolphin-tuna case filed by Mexico and the turtle-shrimp case filed by India, Pakistan and others. Many other environmentalists want bans on imports of tropical timber. It is in order to please these extremely powerful and vocal green lobbies that the Western governments want to link environment standards with trading rules. Public opinion usually supports the green lobbies. And they also help the protectionist economic interests of these countries. The environmental fuss over dolphins, shrimps and tropical timber may not have received overt support from the local fisheries and timber producers but the tacit support was always there. Linking trade and environment, thus, benefits industrialised countries in every way. And they will promote their civil society to create a bigger and bigger fuss about it. Bill Clinton was, therefore, quite keen to open up the highly secretive wto to ngo participation.

Things have already been moving in that direction. In the turtle-shrimp case, the World Wildlife Fund-International (wwf) had wanted to intervene in the turtle-shrimp hearings with a brief. The dispute panel refused to entertain it arguing that it could only listen to governments. The us government, however, turned everything around by simply attaching the wwf brief to its own brief. And when the us took the adverse ruling of the panel to the Appellate Body, the latter took the dispute panel to task for not entertaining the wwf brief directly.

So why is the government of India afraid of its own civil society? Does the government of India think it is the sole representative of the country with total rights over what should be done? Is it the government's case that the civil society and the labour unions have no business participating in the governance or in the determination of the future of this country? Surely, neither of this is constitutionally correct. But then why do our politicians behave in this way?

Could it be that the Indian civil society opposes government positions in international fora? This is largely untrue of the environmental community or of trade unions. Despite the fact that India's environmental and labour conditions are in a critical condition -- largely due to the negligence of our political leaders -- Indian environmentalists have never demanded that trade and environment should get interlinked. In fact, the Centre for Science and Environment (cse) has consistently opposed Western environmentalists for promoting trade sanctions as a way of forcing environmental changes because trade sanctions are a very inegalitarian tool. They can be used only by the rich countries against the poor countries. If Bangladesh were to apply trade sanctions against the world's biggest polluter of greenhouse gases which are causing global warming and which are predicted to drown nearly a third of the country in the next century, everybody would laugh at the attempt. Neither have Indian trade unionists seen wto as a way of improving India's labour conditions.

The Congress Party sent Kamal Nath to wto as its representative because of his performance in the Rio Conference. But would Nath have been able to put in his stellar performance without the support of the country's civil society? At that time prime minister P V Narasimha Rao had personally asked for Indian ngos to be included in the official delegation. And a great part of Kamal Nath's success lay in the intellectual and lobbying support he got both in and outside the official negotiations. The author himself had consistently advised the minister during the negotiations and had mobilised the civil society of the Southern nations to oppose the idea of a Forest Convention. In fact, over the years, a large number of Western ngos, including us ngos, have themselves started opposing the Forest Convention which several timber-producing nations like Canada and Finland continue to pursue with great fervour.

If any lesson was to be learnt at that time, it was that the government of India should learn to work with the country's civil society in international negotiations. In fact, the next century, which is going to be a century of the Internet and global dialogue, the civil society will become more and more important. In fact, the Internet played a key role in the mobilisation of activists against the Seattle meet.

The real reason why most Indian politicians don't like to work with the civil society is their fear that the same civil society which will give them support in international negotiations to protect India's overall interests, will turn against them to hold them accountable for their ineptitude in dealing with environmental concerns within the country, like the loss of biodiversity, pollution or child labour. This is really why the Indian politicians are scared of working with their own people. The same Kamal Nath who had received strong support from cse and other ngos in Rio was strongly opposed by them back in the country when he decided to parcel off large tracts of government-owned forest land to the private sector despite the ruling prepared by the National Forest Policy under the leadership of Rajiv Gandhi.

Not surprisingly, the democratic Indian government represented by the ministry of external affairs has regularly surprised everyone by routinely opposing participation of ngos in un discussions on environment. But all that we can say is that by refusing to involve India's own civil society our wise politicians are only cutting their own feet and risking the future of the country. Their voice will be -- in fact, it increasingly is already being -- seen as obstructionist and negative in the international arena without the moral support of the country's civil society. None of the senior Indian politicians that I have met tell me that India will be able to withstand the growing pressures for environmental standards in wto. It will be even more so if the babus and the netas want to stand aside from the other people of this country.

-- Anil Agarwal

Subscribe to Daily Newsletter :

Comments are moderated and will be published only after the site moderator’s approval. Please use a genuine email ID and provide your name. Selected comments may also be used in the ‘Letters’ section of the Down To Earth print edition.