NEW DELHI -- Visiting Finnish Foreign Minister Erkki Tuomioja on Wednesday lent his support for reforming the World Trade Organisation (WTO) to make it more transparent and democratic.
Speaking at the Nepal-India-Finnish Dialogue on Economic Democracy, organised jointly by the Centre for the Study of Developing Societies (CSDS) and the Embassy of Finland in New Delhi, Mr Tuomioja agreed with several issues that India has been raising during the multilateral trade negotiations.
He noted that there is a paradigm shift from the neoliberal agenda of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation. Mainstream thinking now recognises the need for enhanced political influence and steering mechanism of the economic process.
Mr Tuomioja also called for multilateral agreements on environment and social issues like the core labour standards, but said they should be outside the WTO. He supported the review of the TRIPs (Trade Related Intellectual Property Measures) Agreement to harmonise it with the Convention on Biological Diversity, protect the innovations of the indigenous people and exclude life forms from patents.
Moderating the discussion, Prof. Arun Kumar, convenor of the Working Group on Economic Democracy of the CSDS, said that the WTO is pushing the market economy, which understands the logic of purchasing power only. He noted that it has been widely recognised that motion of the market is chaotic and transition imposes very heavy social costs.
There was a near unanimity among Indian and Nepalese speakers that the kind of globalisation being pushed by the WTO is undermining democracy, economy and society of the developing world. Some participants even wanted a way to get rid of the WTO.
Offering a solution, Prof. Madhu Dandavate, former finance minister and deputy chairman of the Planning Commission, said that we should not be serious about the sanctity of international treaties. Giving examples of the Treaties of Yalta and Versailles and the Berlin Wall, he said that they always crumble before the public opinion.
BS Chimni of the Jawaharlal Nehru University expressed concern that there is a complete absence of democracy at the WTO. At every round we are forced to "secede national economic space to the WTO" so that no matter which political party comes to power it does not have the flexibility of making laws in fulfilling the aspirations of the people. Rules of WTO are not framed through negotiations but are brought through the back door. Under the proposed multilateral agreement on investment, the transnational corporations have been given rights but no obligations or duties.
Prakash Mahat, advisor to the Nepalese Prime Minister, said that the WTO is about the problems of the major trading blocs and it has been unnecessarily forced on us. Poverty, in fact, may have actually increased as a result of WTO.
Devinder Sharma, food and agriculture policy analyst, said that there is dishonesty in fulfilling WTO commitments. He said that the developed countries have simply shifted their subsidies in the name of environment and other issues. Now the European Union wants to push the multi-functionality of agriculture simply to protect its subsidies. He said that while the developing countries have been forced to eliminate quantitative restrictions, the rich countries are going ahead with their subsidies, which are hitting the livelihoods of our farmers, which form 65 per cent of the population. Hitting out at the international patents regime, he said that India has world’s second largest scientific manpower and is also home to several important plants. Still India had to recently pay for having using a gene of rice, a crop which spread out from this land.
Mr Yogendra Yadav of the CSDS noted that most of the economic debate is stifled on the ground that the subject is an international commitment. In the last 10 years we have had four elections and no political party did ever ask the people to vote on the issue of WTO.
Pradip Giri of Nepal said that coalition against terrorism is a misplaced priority. Terrorism cannot end as long poverty remains. He warned that unless poverty is declared as the chief issue of the 21st century, terrorism would rule the century. He said that. It should be poverty.
Noted journalist Prabhash Joshi said that global democracy is a contradiction in terms. Democracy means local whereas globalisation means imposing neo-colonialism. "I don’t mind if Europe is made a colony by the US. But I will certainly fight any attempt to colonise India," he declared.
Dr Sunilam, political activist and member of Madhya Pradesh legislative assembly, said that WTO is a barrier to the people’s welfare schemes and projects. What kind of a democracy is this where there is no debate in any state assembly or the parliament, He asked.
Responding to the debate, Mr Tuomioja said that he agreed with the views expressed by the participants but argued that the new information technology has the potential of becoming a decentralising force.
He said that even if the WTO has weaknesses and drawbacks, it provides the member countries power to discipline the powerful countries. Any country can pull the US to dispute settlement court. He admitted that the Common Agriculture Programme of the European Union, offering huge subsidies, is a scandal and needs to be reformed.
The minister earlier had a separate interaction with senior politicians. Mr Vijay Pratap of Vasudhaiva Kutumbakam, a working group of CSDS, moderated the discussion.