Loud and unclear

By Sunita Narain
Last Updated: Monday 17 August 2015

Does the Indian government’s loud voice in international negotiations produce results? At the recent WTO meet in Bali, the Indian government went all guns blazing to defend the rights of its farmers and to ensure food security for millions of poor. It opposed the Agreement on Agriculture that limits government food procurement at 10 per cent of the value of total production, based on the prices of late 1980s. It said this clause would impinge on its right to offer farmers a supportive price and to procure food stocks for its food safety programme. Instead, the Indian government proposed a “food security” box, which would allow developing countries’ governments to plan and execute food policies.

imageBut the final agreement signed in Bali is weak and could have disastrous implications for India’s food security programme. It only accepts that the “peace clause”—under which countries would refrain from lodging complaints—would last till a permanent solution is found and not for four years as proposed earlier. It demands full disclosure of developing countries’ food procurement strategies. Worse, it includes a specific clause on anti-circumvention and safeguards which makes developing countries responsible for ensuring that stocks procured under such programmes “do not distort trade or adversely affect food security of other members”. In other words, it undermines the agreement to allow countries space to protect the livelihood and nutrition needs of its people. There is also a fear that the Bali Agreement on Agriculture pertains to only the existing public stockholding programme and any new initiative will be open to disputes. There is no doubt that the Indian government succumbed to global pressure and compromised on its position to force a rethink on this clause.

In climate change negotiations matters have still not come to a head. But it is clear that the Indian government, which has consistently raised the matter of right to development of the poorest and argued that equity has to be the basis of any climate deal, is finding it hard to maintain its leadership. At the recent Warsaw meet on climate change, the Indian government was hard-pressed to explain why it opposed the African proposal to operationalise the concept in future negotiations. It has no proposal of its own, so the Indian government’s position was defensive at best.

This stalling tactic is obviously not enough. As a result, developing countries are losing bit by bit. They lose first and foremost because negotiations to hold rich polluters responsible are coming to naught. At the Warsaw meet, Japan, Australia and the EU, all reneged on their earlier emission reduction targets. Japan, for instance, said it was not going to reduce emissions by 25 per cent by 2020 over its 1990 levels. Instead, it was going to increase emissions by roughly 3 per cent.

This is when the world is more certain today that climate change is beginning to show in the increased frequency and intensity of extreme weather events. At the same Warsaw meet, the delegation from the typhoon-hit Philippines made an impassioned speech about how its country was devastated by these disasters.

The Warsaw meet saw the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities (CBDR)—which differentiates between countries that have created the climate change problem and others—further diluted. It was agreed that under the Ad-hoc Working Group on Durban Platform, all countries, including the developing ones, would now have to submit nationally determined contributions to tackle climate change. But there is no mention that these contributions—targets to reduce emissions—would be based on CBDR or equity. So the ground is slipping. India’s grandstanding is not working. The question is: why?

In my view there are two clear reasons. One, that the Indian government is often unclear whose side it is on. It has competing interests to defend, and it cannot make up its mind to stand firm on the side of the poor (whose voice it seeks to be). Take the WTO deal. While farmers may have lost in the agreement, industry has clearly gained. The Agreement on Trade Facilitation is expected to increase global trade in leaps and bounds—the figure of US $1.3 trillion is bandied about. But the deal would not have happened if the Indian government had stuck to its position on agriculture.

In climate change negotiations, the Indian government pushes for justice, but also wants to ensure that its “friendship” with the US remains intact. This is difficult, given that the US is the single-biggest reason equity is a bad word in the negotiations. It is also caught between what its industry wants—to benefit from emission trading schemes—and the demand for an effective agreement based on equal rights over atmospheric commons.

The second reason is that the Indian government is losing the battle of global ideas and perceptions because it does not do its homework or effectively communicate its position. In all these negotiations, the rich and industrialised world is getting away with untenable positions only because governments of developing countries cannot expose them—show them for what they really are.

In this way noise ends in a whimper. We lose.

Agriculture: Small steps forward on farm trade?

India's agricultural trade policy and sustainable development goals

What to expect from Warsaw COP

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  • Not only is India -

    Not only is India - ambiguous! The basic reason is we are not realistic or preemptive of the global change - in trade, economics, environment, society etc. At the same time we have to tackle the huge numbers and their ever growing home demand. Even with a considerable natural resource base - water, land, forests etc and the second highest human resource in the world we have not tried seriously to protect, manage or equip them for the future.
    We have a lop-sided development model. We have a disconnect from our past and no effective role for the future.
    Lethargy and short-sightedness have almost always left us mortified at the global stage. And honestly if we can't put our own house in order first what to talk of international negotiations!

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • One contributing factor to

    One contributing factor to our being generally ineffective in international negotiations (as elsewhere) is that here attending such events is still seen as 'junkets'wherein those who can 'manage' get on the plane while the experts are made to sit at home and write good drafts!

    It would be good to know which secretary in GoI is an expert on say the political economy of agriculture or climate change?

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • India is a perfect example of

    India is a perfect example of a state of confusion. As a country it has no concept of a 'stand' in international affairs of common good. And this stand has to have its origin in the conscience of the country as a whole and its relevance in the global comity of nations. either rich or poor. And the bad news is one cannot be democratic when it comes to conscience and therefore the stand. What is true is true irrespective of opinions and the justifications thereof. And it is imperative that as a country we need to be objective in relating to the global commons whether it is climate or food or whatever. This objectivity stems not from political dogmas and what is perceived as 'good' but from a balance of factors leading to the situation of inequity although the initial conditions of inequity has to be accepted as historical fact which cannot be corrected. Therefore an unbiased understanding of the facts as they are not as they are perceived to be is the prudent manner of dealing with and therefore leading to the 'stand' emanating from the conscience of what is inherently true. This then can be prevailed upon in the formation of a global opinion in maintaining and conserving the global commons. The political leadership of the country has to be mature enough not in trying to convince but to be able to make all others 'see' the imperatives of the global commons. Our country needs to take a leading role in this given our rich traditions of art & management.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • Are secretary's in GoI

    Are secretary's in GoI supposed to be experts on say the political economy of agriculture or climate change? They have been and will always be generalists.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply
  • No. That would be expecting

    No. That would be expecting too much! However, it does not bode well that we will continue to be represented by 'generalists' who "know" everything and have a background in 'nothing'.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply