The regional comprehensive economic partnership (rcep) held its19th round of negotiations between 18th-28th july in hyderabad. The RCEP was set up in 2002. It is a forum of16 countries, to negotiate their mutual terms of trade, i.e. how much of the trade between them should be free of barriers like import duties, etc. The Partnership includes the10 countries of Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) – Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, Indonesia, Laos, Cambodia, Brunei, Myanmar and Philippines and six other countries – Australia, China, India, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, who have entered into trade agreements with the ASEAN.
The RCEP negotiations were strongly condemned and opposed by several organisations of farmers, people’s organisations engaged in health, agriculture, labour rights, financial and public services on the ground that there would very adverse consequences for the Indian people when the trade and investment treaty comes into effect. The organisations questioned the government of India’s agreement to be part of the RCEP, which allows foreign investors to even sue governments, restricts policy space for governments, threatens access to life-saving medicines and puts seed sovereignty at risk.
The RCEP requires countries to reduce import duties to agreed-upon concessional rates as soon as the agreement comes into force. The negotiations have been carried out in total secrecy behind the backs of people. Therefore, there is naturally great concern amongst people about the negative impact of any agreement that the government of India signs. Some reports indicate that all current FTAs will continue and RCEP will just be adding numerous new concession lists. Other reports indicate that the Hyderabad Round of RCEP discussed the elimination of all import duties on 92 traded commodities.It is not clear if India has agreed with this proposal or what the actual terms of the proposal were. However, the Hyderabad Round has sparked fears that if India signs the agreement, it would open up the Indian market for zero import duty for all times to come on imports from these 15 countries. India will have to open up for milk, all kinds of fruits, vegetables, pulses, potatoes, spices, plantation crops, seeds, silk, processed foods etc. This is expected to affect the livelihood of crores of peasants (15 crore in the dairy sector alone).
Peasants in India have already borne the brunt of existing Free Trade Agreements (FTA), such as the ASEAN-India FTA and India Sri-Lanka FTA. Cheap imports of palm oil, pepper and tea have devastated lives of peasants across South India. There is legitimate concern that the RCEP agreements could lead to further devastation of the peasantry, through opening up India’s agricultural market to cheap goods from other RCEP member countries.
Imports of not just palm oil and coal, but chemicals, iron and steel, rubber, plastics and chemicals under FTA’s have impacted vast sectors of the economy.
The Indian government wants to use RCEP to reduce and even eliminate all barriers to the export of IT and IT-enabled services (ITES). At the same time, China, Australia, and New Zealand, among other countries, want reduction of duties and other constraints in exporting manufactured goods and agriculture commodities to India. In the pharmaceutical sector, Japan and South Korea are demanding stricter patent laws that will affect the manufacture and export of generic medicines produced in India that are relatively more affordable than patented medicines. It is reported that Indian government may sacrifice the interests of peasants and small manufacturers to enable it to bargain for expansion of its IT and ITES exports. These reports have fueled worry and opposition amongst the peasants and small manufacturers to the proposed agreements.
The Indian government has been quite secretive about its stance in these negotiations. The outcome of the Hanoi meet held about two months back is still unclear and this lack of clarity to the public continued during the Hyderabad Round. Various sections ranging from business chambers, big and small, farmers’ organisations and dairy cooperatives are demanding that they must be consulted before the government sets off for the next round of talks in September.