The World Trade Organisation’s seventh ministerial meeting held earlier this month at Geneva ended without anything substantial to show. But then the meeting was not meant to be “a substantive negotiating round.” It did not face the kind of controversies that marred previous ministerial meetings at Seattle (1999) and Cancun (2003), which collapsed amidst intense acrimony. At Geneva, trade ministers were given an agenda that deliberately skirted the substantive issues plaguing the WTO and the stalled Doha round. However, the WTO’s own assessment of the ministerial is more upbeat, as has been the case every time a meeting — official or non-official — ended in a failure. According to its official statement, the conference sent a strong signal of convergence on the importance of Doha round talks to economic recovery and poverty alleviation in developing countries. The ministers reaffirmed the need to complete the Doha round by 2010. A stock-taking exercise is to be held by March next year. The one point on which the member countries have agreed upon since the Hong Kong ministerial meeting (2005) is that the Doha round should be kept alive. However, with each successive failure, hopes of salvaging it are fast receding.

India has special reasons to feel disappointed over the lack of real progress in the eight-year-old Doha development round. The two-day Delhi mini-ministerial in September paved the way for restarting active trade negotiations at the level of trade ministers. Chief negotiators and trade officials were asked to prepare an agenda for action. Like the subsequent Geneva ministerial with a broader participation, the Delhi talks were about processes rather than substantial issues. Despite considerable improvements, the refined texts of the drafts on agriculture and non-agricultural market access (NAMA) remain contentious. For India, an important outstanding issue is that of bringing negotiations in services on a par with those in agriculture and NAMA. There is very little indication, even from the Geneva ministerial meeting, that services negotiations will move to the centre stage. It will be unrealistic to expect the Doha round to be wrapped up soon. There are a number of divisive issues that can be deal-breakers. For instance, the framework of a special safeguards mechanism in agriculture that will satisfy all is yet to be worked out. There is an all-round realisation that a successful completion of the Doha round will strengthen the multilateral trading system and boost orderly trade. That, however, seems quite some distance away.

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