Civil society organisations and trade experts on Sunday raised concern over the secrecy surrounding the negotiations regarding a proposed mega-regional Free Trade Agreement (FTA) involving 16 Asia Pacific nations including India and China.
Technical level talks of the proposed FTA, officially known as Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), are being held from July 18 to 28 at the Hyderabad International Convention Centre.
The RCEP, among other things, aims to liberalise investment norms as well as boost trade by eliminating/drastically reducing import duties on goods and bringing down ‘barriers’ in the services sector. The 16 nations account for a combined GDP of close to $50 trillion (or about 40% of the world’s GDP) and are home to around 3.5 billion people.
After a day-long meeting, the ‘People’s Resistance Forum against FTAs and RCEP’ — an umbrella body representing farmers, industrial workers and service sector employees, street vendors, HIV-positive persons, tribals, environmental activists and women’s organisations, among others — said in a statement that the RCEP would have wide-ranging impact on agriculture, services, access to medicines, investment and e-commerce. Therefore, the government should place the details of the negotiations before the public and hold extensive and meaningful consultations with all stakeholders including the states, it said. Or else, India should immediately withdraw from RCEP negotiations, it added.
Yogendra Yadav of the Swaraj Abhiyan and the All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee — who participated in the meeting here to protest the secrecy surrounding the RCEP negotiations — told The Hindu that "the final agreement might have pluses and minuses, but we should not be waiting till then to know whether it benefits only the big corporates and if it harms the interests of the farmers and small enterprises.’’
He said, “when you can have the draft texts of even nuclear disarmament treaties in the public domain, what is the need to hide the draft text relating to the RCEP talks?” Mr Yadav said the process of scrutiny of FTAs involving India, including the RCEP, was extremely weak in the country. He said the government should immediately agree to a debate in Parliament on the pros and cons of the RCEP. “The RCEP should not be allowed to come into force till it is ratified by Parliament,” Mr Yadav added.
Biswajit Dhar, professor, Jawaharlal Nehru University, said the RCEP had the potential to eliminate the policy space of the government to address developmental concerns, and that the decisions could adversely impact future generations.
He said, “according to the government’s promises, these FTAs are good for the country and will raise incomes. If that is so, then why aren’t the people allowed to see and understand what is going on in the FTA negotiations? Why is there such secrecy surrounding an FTA negotiation in a country which claims itself to be democratic?”
According to the People’s Resistance Forum against FTAs and RCEP, among the apprehensions regarding the RCEP is the one that it might include patents on seeds paving the way for control of the seed sector by multinational companies. It could lead to elimination of duties on milk products and result in huge imports of such items from countries including Australia and New Zealand, the Forum said, adding that such a situation would hit small dairy producers in India. Besides, it could allow foreign investors to sue governments in secret international arbitration cases under an Investor-State Dispute Settlement mechanism, the Forum added.