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It's raining FTAs!
By Devinder Sharma

Manmohan Singh government is in a hurry to sign FTAs without considering the consequences or taking the nation into confidence.

PM Manmohan Singh with US President Barack Obama

At the height of the infamous Emergency period, noted cartoonist Abu Abraham drew a cartoon in the Indian Express that will never fade away from my memory. The cartoon showed the then President Fakhruddin Ali Ahmed in a bath tub with his outstretched hand returning back a signed bill, and saying: if there are any more ordinances, just ask them to wait.

Abu's cartoon said it all.

If I were an artist or could draw lines I would have surely drawn inspiration from Abu and sketched a similar cartoon to depict the undue haste with which Prime Minister Manmohan Singh is trying to sign the Free Trade Agreements. I am not sure how much time Manmohan Singh takes to emerge from his bath, but at the rate that he is signing FTAs, I wonder whose pressures he is working under. Sonia Gandhi is certainly not playing Indira Gandhi. Maybe, as someone said the other day, he has been promised an honorary doctorate by the Harvard University.

Well, while we are still struggling to understand the gains that will accrue from the India-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement that the Union Cabinet has cleared only a few days back, comes this report from Seoul that says South Korea and India are to sign a de facto FTA, which will remove or reduce tariffs over the next 10 years, and also open up the two country's services and investment sector.

The news report quoted Cho Choong-jae, an associate research fellow at the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy (KIEP) telling Korean Times: "Effects of the CEPA should not be evaluated merely by tariff cuts. The pact should be appreciated as having given Korea a stepping stone into the Indian market. In view of its potential, India could emerge as a leading trade destination for Korea similar to China."

The India-South Korea de facto FTA comes at a time when the country is in a tearing hurry to sign bilateral agreements. Without even understanding what these agreements would mean for the country, and without even caring to let the country know the implications of such agreements, what it means for trade, livelihoods and resulting hunger, the Prime Minister is not even waiting to emerge from his bath.

We have the India-EU FTA already on the table. Ministry of Commerce is presently in various stages of negotiations with at least a dozen countries, as far as Chile. Close to 35 FTAs are in the pipeline. And what is worse is that the nation does not know what will be the gain from signing all these agreements. If the Prime Minister knows, isn't it his moral duty to inform and educate the country?

The fast track mode the current government has adopted to push all these bilateral agreements exposes the priorities Manmohan govt has set for itself. Certainly it doesn't want to miss the opportunity of enjoying unrestrained power minus the left front support. Why care now for what the nation thinks. What the PMO decides should be considered to be in country's economic health. After all, as the media reminds us again and again, we have a distinguished economist in the hot seat. But we are also the world's biggest democracy. Let it be clear, Prime Minister is not the CEO of the country. He cannot be allowed to behave like one.

The FTAs are raining at a time when only a few years back the country's great economists were telling us that a multilateral agreement (read WTO) was in the country's interest otherwise imagine the laborious engagements in signing bilateral deals. Those economists, and their superfluous arguments, have since been silenced. They no longer talk about the multiplying number of bilateral deals that are being signed the world over. I thought they wanted only one multilateral deal to take care of international trade. Why is it that the world is now witnessing some 400 bilateral and regional trade agreements on the horizon?

The Doha Development Round is also back on the agenda. Interestingly, while the United States is not keen on ending the impasse at WTO, India is bending backwards to make that possible. It has already brought about a change in the domestic trade guard, and replaced them with a more pliable team. The underlying message to the US government is loud and clear -- India is ready to sign on the dotted line. You don't even have to wait for the Prime Minister to finish his bath.

Disclaimer: The views expressed above are personal and do not necessarily reflect the views of d-sector editorial team.

Devinder Sharma  |  Food and trade policy analyst, columnist and activists' guide  |  hunger55@gmail.com

Devinder Sharma is an award-winning journalist, writer, and researcher globally recognised for his analysis on food, agriculture and trade policy. After completing M.Sc. in Plant Breeding and Genetics, he started his career as a journalist. A decade later, he quit active journalism to research on policy issues concerning hunger and food security, biodiversity, genetic engineering and IPRs. He writes and speaks extensively on these issues and has written more than 10,000 articles till date.

Write to d-sector  |  Editor's Note

Corruption Watch

The bad news is that corruption has not only sustained but has grown in size and stature in the country. With scams being a regular feature, seventy per cent respondents in a survey have rightfully opined that corruption has continued to increase in India. One in every two interviewed admit having paid a bribe for availing public services during last one year. Transparency International's latest survey reveals that the political parties top the chart for the most corrupt public institutions, followed by police force and legislatures. No wonder, India continues to make new records on the global corruption arena!

The shocking revelation is that the health and education sectors haven't remained untouched by this phenomenon. With 5th and 6th positions respectively for these sectors on the public perception chart on corruption, corruption has crept insidiously into these sectors of hope for the masses. With bureaucracy being fourth in the list of corrupt institutions in the country, corruption seems to have been non-formally institutionalized with little hope if public services would ever be effective in the country. With economic growth having literally institutionalized corruption, are we now expecting corrupt to be socially responsible - a different CSR.

Poor. Who?

Not giving 'aid' to India is one thing but calling it 'rich' is quite another. If one in three of the world's malnourished children live in India, what does average daily income of $3 indicate? It perhaps means that there is a relative decline in poverty - people are 'less poor' than what they used to be in the past. But having crossed the World Bank arbitrary threshold of $2 a day does not absolve the 'developed' countries of their obligation to part with 0.7 per cent of their Gross National Income in development aid. Should this three-decade old figure not be revised?  

An interesting debate in UK's House of Commons delved on future of development assistance by the British Government. While prioritizing limited resources has been a concern, there has been no denying the fact that development aid must be guided towards tangible gains over a short period of time to start with. There are difficult choices for elected governments to make - should they invest in long-term primary education or in short-term university scholarships? Which of these will bring gains and trigger long-term transformation in the society. As politicians continue to be divided on the matter, poverty persists!!   

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