The export of fish and fish products from India is not a post-Independence phenomenon. Fish export statistics are available from mid-nineteenth century onwards. Princely states like Travancore and Cochin had vibrant export trade. Dried fish and prawns, fish oil, shark fins, sea cucumber, fishmeal -- these, and other products, held sway in international trade.
Immediately after independence, India lost many of its Asian markets. Regions that were part of the Empire, on attaining independence, restricted imports and diversified their sources of supply. However, enterprising individuals attempted to utilise technology -- such as freezing, still in its infancy -- and dared to cultivate new international markets. The best example was the trial consignment of frozen prawns to the us by an entrepreneur from Travancore-Cochin in 1953.
But in was only in the 1960s, with growing foreign exchange crisis and rupee devaluation (in 1966), that the vast potential of the marine fishery sector was recognised. Imports were near zero; every dollar earned in marine exports was a dollar the coffers netted. Central and state governments began to reorient fishery development plans to achieve the highest quantum of exports. The setting up of the Marine Products Export Development Council (later, it became the Marine Products Export Development Authority, mpeda) was just one indication. By the 1980s, fisheries development became equated to fish exports -- more precisely, the narrow pursuit of export of frozen prawns to Japan, the us and Europe.
An unintended effect of this all-out export-orientation was that the domestic component of the fish economy was orphaned. Harvesting, processing and marketing activities were left to fend for themselves. Major technological changes, the state-subsidised investments and other incentives went almost totally to export-oriented activities. The quantum of fish and fish products exported gradually increased, to reach about 20 per cent of the wet-weight equivalent of the country's fish harvests. The export sector became an island of wealth generation and modern food processing. It flourished amidst a sea of poverty and unhygienic and wasteful fish handling.
Today fish is considered to be the most internationally traded primary commodity. Global imports and exports of fish and fishery products range between us $55-60 billion. The main importers are the us, Japan and the eu: they account for over three-quarter of imports. The developing countries are the major exporters, accounting for about half the value of the trade. The long-term trend in India is not very different. The quantities, and value of exports in rupees, have been increasing rapidly. However, viewed in us dollar terms, the gains are not so impressive in the post-1982 period due to the sharp devaluation of the rupee.
Our share of total global fish trade is not very large. As a result we cannot substantially influence the dynamics of the international market. For the future, if we are to augment our role, it is important to examine critically the international trade situation. This is particularly so in the context of the new rules of trade which India has agreed to adopt by becoming a signatory to the world trade agreements of 1994.
There is today a view that fish is the business of the exporters, the Ministry of Commerce and the mpeda alone. This is shortsighted. True gains from international fish trade will come only with holistic development of the fish economy.
There are a few other crucial instruments India needs to pay attention to:
gatt article xx (general exceptions): This enables wto members to take measures inconsistent with the provisions of gatt 1994. Article xx (b) permits action necessary to protect the life or health of human beings, animals or plants. Article xx (g) permits action relating to the conservation of exhaustible natural resources.
There can be new issues specific to India. One potential candidate with far reaching consequences is the issue of pollution of coastal waters due to the use of outboard engines.
fao's code of conduct for responsible fisheries (ccrf): The initiative to start discussions on "responsible fishing" and on formulating a code came from Mexico following trade embargoes imposed on Mexican tuna by the us. Under the ccrf, Article 11 (on Post Harvest Practices and Trade) provides guidelines which can be adopted by those involved in processing and marketing for domestic and export markets. Though this is a voluntary code, India is a signatory to it and there have been initiatives at the national level to implement it in all maritime states. Translation of the ccrf into Indian languages will be a good beginning.
convention on international trade in endangered species (cites): It is important to keep track of the various listings under this convention. There could be species that are identified as endangered and result in the creation of a non-tariff barrier. A good example is the status of sharks, under discussion since 1994.
social clause issues: Matters pertaining to child labour, exploitation of women and the rights of workers are also likely to become contentious issue in the future.
investment agreements: Where international investments are required to be given the same status and treatment as national investment, it will be judicious to examine how to assign access rights and property rights to coastal seas and inland water bodies.
The Doha Ministerial Declaration issued in November 2001 has on its expanded negotiating agenda at least three areas that have a bearing on fisheries and fish trade.
subsidies: The Declaration refers to "clarify and improve wto disciplines on fisheries subsidies". It is not clear what this means. The different implications of the social, economic and ecological benefits and costs of subsidies in the context of rich and poor countries, small-scale and large-scale, and coastal and distant-water fisheries, both in the short and long run need to be studied closely.
market access: Under Market Access for Non-Agricultural Products -- the category under which fish trade falls -- modalities are to be agreed upon to reduce or eliminate tariffs, particularly on products of export interest to developing countries. Such negotiations can potentially contribute to employment benefits, especially to women. Presently tariffs have come down only for unprocessed fish. Developing countries need to apply pressure to bring down or eliminate the tariffs on processed fish and fish products (like canned tuna in brine or oil) that are exported to the industrialized nations. Exporting processed fish, instead of raw fish, can contribute to better conversion of wet weight to product weight, with positive implications for fisheries resource conservation.
trade and environment: A third area of relevance is the negotiations on the relationship between wto rules and specific trade obligations under multilateral environmental agreements. cites and iccat are examples of agreements that have set out specific trade obligations.
The iccat management measures sometimes apply to imports from non-member countries. Further, certain species of sharks and sea horses, mainly harvested in developing countries, are likely to find their way into the cites Appendices i and ii in the near future. This is a potential area of conflict between 'development' and 'conservation' interests, and the debate could very well be polarised between industrialised and developing countries. There seems to be consensus emerging at the international level that free trade in marine fish and fish products can be counter-productive to conservation of fish stocks. There is reference in the Doha Ministerial Declaration that the wto Committee on Trade and Environment should continue its work to examine the effects of environmental measures on market access as well as labeling requirements for environmental purposes. However, these could also develop in the private sphere and under conditions where participation of developing countries could be very restricted.
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