Opinion

India held its ground on fisheries and public stockholding, but WTO’s eroding credibility as a consensus builder is worrying

All is well that ends well. The WTO MC12 with representatives from 162 countries finally managed to secure a few deals, as the talks got extended by another day amidst intense bargaining on fishing, vaccines, food security, amongst others.

India, as it has always been the case, had taken due consideration and represented not only its own people on these tricky matters at WTO, but also for the developing South. It did so this year too with great alacrity.

Successes and concessions

As always at WTO, there has been a quid pro quo in the process. As India managed to uphold its right in the MC12 to continue to offer subsidies to its fishermen while firmly establishing sovereign sights on exclusive economic zones, in lieu, India had to consent to an 18-month extension of the moratorium on customs duty on electronic imports.

The latter was signed in 1998 when developing economies did not have much access to technology related data sources and allowed digital imports or electronic imports or transmissions, unlike today wherein it can earn significantly from such information.

However, India successfully managed to postpone an agreement on public stockholding of foodgrains, which will now be taken up only in the next ministerial meeting. It may be noted that Article XI generally prohibits quantitative restrictions on the imports or the exports of any product.

However, exceptions within it permits the imposition of quantitative measures under limited conditions, and only if they are taken on policy grounds justifiable under the GATT, such as critical shortages of foodstuffs.

Disheartening on TRIPS

While there were last minute efforts to stitch an agreement quickly under the TRIPS for vaccines, it did not immediately apply to all Covid-19 medical tools, including therapeutics and diagnostics, which was unfortunate.

The need to dismantle tariffs during a humanitarian crisis cannot be overemphasised. In October 2020, India and South Africa proposed to waive TRIPS obligations, relying on Article IX of the WTO Agreement, while addressing the shortages of products needed to combat Covid-19.

Ironically, the TRIPS waiver clause, which was created for use in emergencies, could have been implemented when vaccines were made available, but it failed when it was needed it most.

From a humanitarian perspective, even after the pandemic which impacted developed and less developed alike, the WTO failed miserably to garner key consensus on a complete waiver of intellectual property rights for vaccines, treatments, and diagnostics.

Future of WTO

While many in the developed world call it adamant, India rightfully remains committed to the larger cause of developed and developing economies on varied matters.

While MC12 met with elements of some success, major WTO negotiations have been stalled over the years. The hegemony of the developed is a story of the past, and this needs to be accepted by all for the well being of the WTO, whose roots are based on multilateralism and consensus.

While the WTO functions on a consensus-based decision-making processes, there is a huge gap between haves and have nots. The developed countries are advanced and less populated, whereas the developing South is more populous and playing catch up with the developed world.

This dichotomy is real and cannot be brushed under the carpet. The developing nations need long term hand holding to evolve, so that sooner than later negotiations are conducted at an equal footing. Structural changes in the WTO need to take cognisance of this.

Lastly, given that the WTO wants global trade to take place in a manner which is non-discriminatory including settling trade disputes, it cannot afford to have long pauses as it is not good for facilitating trade.

The fact that the appellate body has stopped functioning with no new members being appointed to the panel for long, rendering it futile, sends an wrong signal about the objective of WTO.

Since the formation of WTO in 1995, the number of FTAs has increased from 23 to 97 in 2008 (during the financial crisis) to 181 in 2022. These numbers are significant, as they point towards a marginalisation of multilateralism.

It is hence important for WTO to strike a balance, and not allow its effectiveness to wither away. Hopefully, between now and the MC13 these issues would find some resonance within the corridors of WTO.

The writer is an economist with India Exim Bank. Views expressed are personal

Published on June 21, 2022