The WTO ministerial conference, starting in Nairobi today, is taking place two years after the Bali meet, in which India could not secure much by way of concession for its farming community. Notably, the Bali meet could not make any headway on the vexatious issue of farmer subsidies: India and some other developing countries had requested that the subsidy given to farmers be removed from the class of ‘actionable subsidies’, which is subsidies that were seen to distort global agricultural prices. The advanced nations were dismissive of India’s view that its subsidy programme was on account of its domestic food security. Subsidy was to stay at 10% of the value of farm production. The rich nations, so to speak, won the day, though the only issue India clinched was that legal action in the case of the 10% cap being breached was not immediately applicable.
Commerce minister Nirmala Sitharaman will try to keep intact the gains in Bali and will take the Doha round, started in 2001, forward. This is in line what the director general of the WTO, Roberto Azevedo, has been emphasising for long — focusing on issues that all the countries can act upon. However, subsidies are a sticking point. Western countries spend enormous amounts as farm subsidies and yet want an open market for their products, unmindful of the fact that huge populations in developing countries are directly or indirectly connected with agriculture as a means of livelihood.
Agricultural subsidy is one side of the question. Among the other issues that are at stake are the technical barriers to trade, sanitary and phytosanitary measures, trade-related investment measures and anti-dumping. The industries involved from the Indian point of view are mainly food, textiles and pharmaceuticals. India has repeatedly been pulled up at the dispute settlement body of the WTO. Ms Sitharaman can use the Nairobi platform for a bit more democratisation of the resolution-making process. As regards completing the Doha round, not much can realistically be expected in Nairobi. Two deadlines have been missed, one in 2005 and the other in 2006.