India criticised the World Trade Organization (WTO), particularly rich countries, accusing them of not doing enough to tackle the crises brought on by the pandemic and rising food prices, which put millions of people in poor nations at the risk of starvation.
Union commerce minister Piyush Goyal made the remark while representing India at the plenary session of the Twelfth Ministerial Conference (MC12) of the WTO on Sunday, where he urged members to help the least developed countries (LDCs) recover from the pandemic and access foodgrain supplies that have undergone high global inflation because of the war in Ukraine.
“The pandemic reinforced the importance of ‘One Earth One Health’, calling for global solidarity and collective action,” he said, referring to India’s effort in ramping up supplies of medical products globally and providing Covid-essential items, including vaccines, to several countries.
“Unfortunately, the WTO could not respond with alacrity. We have let down the people of the LDCs and developing countries. The rich countries need to introspect! We need to bow our heads in shame for our inability to respond to the pandemic in time,” he said in his address.
Goyal drew attention of the multilateral forum to the humanitarian crisis triggered by spiralling food inflation and called it a “matter of deep concern”, while also underscoring the importance of nurturing domestic capacities to produce food. “Rising food prices threaten the survival of millions and subjugate the poor and vulnerable nations/people to imperfect markets,” he said.
India, which is supporting its 800 million poor through food security programmes such as the ₹3.4-crore scheme under the Prime Minister Garib Kalyan Ann Yojana (PMGKAY), reiterated the need to have public procurement of foodstocks by offering minimum support price (MSP) to farmers.
“After the Bali Ministerial Decision in 2013, the General Council in 2014 mandated permanent solution on the issue of public foodstocks, which has already been delayed, should be the topmost priority for MC12, before we move to new areas. Nothing is more important than this for the people of the world,” he said.
The public foodstocks issue stems from the WTO’s restrictions on subsidies the government can provide, a restriction that was meant to ensure markets remain competitive globally. But economic inequities have complicated this arrangement, especially for developing countries.
“Our collective moral obligation is to ensure that no person, anywhere in the world, goes to bed hungry and WTO rules should facilitate this. The Covid-19 pandemic has reinforced once again the need and efficacy of food stockholding for public good,” he said.
India’s stand on this matter is backed by the G33, a group of 47 developing and least developed countries. Separately, addressing the G33, Goyal urged them to work collectively to get a fair, balanced and development-centric outcome at the WTO that must also include a permanent solution for the public stockholding.
According to current WTO rules, a member country’s food subsidy is capped at a ceiling of 10% of the value of production based on 1986-88 prices. The cap can be exceeded in certain circumstances under a peace clause.
Last year, India invoked the peace clause for the third time for rice procurement exceeding the 10% ceiling on the subsidy it offered to its farmers, which is critical for the country’s food security.
India’s stand has been that public stockpiling is critical for its food security and total subsidies given by the US and the European Union nations far exceed those offered by India, based on India’s updated calculations.
India and other like-minded countries now want a permanent solution to this matter. The ‘peace clause’ was adopted at the Ninth Ministerial held in Bali in December 2013 as an “interim solution” to avoid raising disputes under various provisions on WTO Agreement on Agriculture (AoA) with respect to public stockholding (PSH).
India sought differential treatment between developed and developing countries on fishing. “Fishing by my country’s traditional fishermen and women is to address hunger, poverty, food and nutrition insecurity, which is largely sustenance fishing. Their right to life and livelihood cannot be curtailed in any manner. On the contrary, those nations responsible for depleted fish-stock should assume responsibility, having exploited the oceans for far too long by giving subsidies,” he said, adding that living in harmony with nature is enshrined in Indian culture and its fishing communities customarily do not fish during the breeding season to allow stocks to be replenished, thereby maintaining the aquatic ecological balance.
The WTO should embrace a people-first approach to trade, Goyal said. “…let me say that when the world is facing severe challenges and expects the WTO to deliver solutions, the MC12 must send a strong message that the rich care for the poor, vulnerable and marginalised people and that we have come together to give them a better future,” he said.
WTO reform is necessary keeping development at its core, to be decided through a precise, transparent and inclusive process, upholding the basic principles and objectives of the WTO, particularly consensus-based decision making and special and differential treatment (SDT).
SDT permits developing countries certain concessions as compared to the developed world, because of historical reasons.
“India strongly believes that the WTO should not negotiate rules on non-trade-related subjects like climate change, gender, etc. which legitimately fall within the domain of other inter-governmental organisations,” Goyal said.
Goyal, however, said India is committed for environment protection. “India reiterates our Prime Minister’s clarion call for sustainable living through ‘Lifestyle For Environment (LiFE)’, a movement aimed at promoting environment-conscious lifestyle, focusing on ‘mindful and deliberate utilisation’ instead of ‘mindless and destructive consumption’. He quoted Mahatma Gandhi to make the point: “The world has enough for everyone’s needs, but not for everyone’s greed.”