pic courtesy- Shaily Gupta
On July 18, 2017 the 19th round of RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) negotiations began in Hyderabad. While the subject-wise Working Groups formed under the RCEP are meeting this week, the high-level Trade Negotiation Committee (TNC) with chief negotiators from 16 countries will have discussions from 24-28 July. 700 officials from the 16 negotiating countries – ASEAN 10 plus ASEAN’s six FTA partners including India, China and Australia, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand, are gathering to negotiate the RCEP.
Just as many people are gathering in the host city for a People’s Summit Against FTAs and RCEP. They question the need to go ahead with a trade deal like RCEP with far-reaching implications for not only developing economies but also for ordinary people across the region.
At a press conference held today in New Delhi, researchers and academics expressed concern about the likely impact of RCEP on areas like agriculture, services, access to medicines, investment and e-commerce. They flagged the growing popular rejection of this mega-regional FTA, which is based on two legitimate and critical grounds.
The first is consent or the absolute lack of it. The RCEP, like other free trade negotiations is being negotiated behind layers of secrecy. Considering that the negotiations cover areas as basic as food, medicine and employment, the secrecy of the negotiations is deeply worrying. There has been no official communication from the Government of India to the states or to people on this matter.
Afsar Jafri of Focus on the Global South asks, “Should states not be consulted on issues which are going to greatly affect them? This is mandated by the Constitutional framework of India. The lack of Parliamentary scrutiny and debate is also a major concern. The monsoon session of the Parliament of India also began this week, but the question is are our MPs even aware of RCEP and prepared to have substantive discussions on the subject, as Indian negotiators are having with the RCEP partners?”
The official stakeholder consultations within RCEP allow for very limited interaction for a few CSOs to place their points on the table. It is the responsibility of national governments to open this process up and consult groups whose lives and livelihoods will be affected by the negotiations such as small farmers, labour and patients’ groups. The People’s Resistance Forum wants all the RCEP texts to be made open.
Second, given the wide-ranging content and coverage of RCEP, legal expert Shalini Bhutani added that it warrants extensive debate at the national and sub-national levels. The RCEP agreement consists of roughly 23 chapters that are to constitute its basic texts. The Government of India projects the RCEP as an agreement which ‘offers immense possibilities’.
However, the people are not convinced. For labour groups, the most important question is whether RCEP will bring decent jobs in manufacturing and services or will it lead to a loss of employment? As Gautam Mody of NTUI says: with OECD countries, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea, being part of this RCEP, the balance of power between the negotiating countries is skewed in favour of these countries and therefore whatever the deal may be it will ensure a competitive advantage for these countries of the global north. The biggest stumbling block to our exports to the countries in the global north are not their level of import duties, but their multiple non-tariff barriers such as levels of food, health, environment, labelling, packaging and other standards that block our exports. These FTAs will force India and the other countries of the global south to cut import duties, jeopardizing domestic manufacturing and agriculture, and severely affecting budgetary provision for social expenditure on health and education. The RCEP will result in an elemental loss of autonomy of the legislative and policy for India and other developing economies. It will accentuate the jobs crisis and undermine both food and health security for the working class.
The People’s Resistance Forum remarks that merely being a part of the largest regional arrangement for trade does not automatically secure the wellbeing of peoples. Members of the Forum state that “we have been a member of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) since 1995, but that has not meant that trade has led to development. In fact, the Doha Development Agenda is itself stuck. A ‘WTO-plus’ set of trade rules will make matters worse.”
Intellectual property is one such area, where some ‘developed’ countries in RCEP – such as Japan and South Korea, are demanding higher standards than WTO TRIPS. This has serious implications for both seeds and medicines. In both sectors India’s IP laws are already TRIPS compliant. Loon Gangte, International Treatment Preparedness Coalition-South Asia urges Prime Minister Modi to ensure that RCEP deal will not have any provisions that can limit the production and supply of life-saving generics. The Indian generics played a crucial role in revolutionary scale up of HIV treatment across the developing world by not only producing affordable generic versions of adult antiretrovirals, but also innovated by making pediatric and fixed-dose combinations of HIV medicines. As people living with HIV are facing increased mortality rates because of co-infection with Tb and Hepatitis C, we again look towards India to provide low priced generics to save our lives.
Small family farms and those who depend on peasant agriculture, even those who wish to stay out of the agro industrial model of farming could find their space further limited by RCEP. Ranja Sengupta of the Third World Network said, “India has already witnessed the adverse impact of the ASEAN FTA on its plantation sector even with relatively modest duty reduction and that impact will increase multifold as India faces demands to eliminate duties on 92% of its goods. Add to that the fact that farmers will now face imports from the world’s third highest subsidiser Japan, and stiff competition from meat and dairy products from Australia and New Zealand.”
Fatima Burnard of Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD) added, “women lead subsistence based agriculture which guarantees food security and nutrition of their communities but RCEP adversely alters the status of women farmers, stopping them from sharing any traditional and indigenous knowledge, and allowing corporation to take over common resources like water, land and forest. Women from the margins – rural poor, Indigenous and Dalit women are the worst impacted.”
Marginalised communities, such Dalits, Adivasis, nomadic and minorities, which are part of the People’s Resistance Forum, remark that “capitalism and Brahminism are twin enemies of Dalits, according to Dr B R Ambedkar, one of the main architects of the Indian Constitution. “Free trade agreements and economic globalisation that increases inequality and creates benefits only for few, needs to be rejected,” says Charles Meesa of the National Alliance of Dalit Organisations.
“India should champion fair trade; RCEP is about free trade and opening of investment agenda”, as Dinesh Abrol explains further, it is not about jobs or manufacturing. As per him there will be no gains in export of goods and services. Import duties accounted for 15% of central government revenues in 2016-17. Agreeing to RCEP’s drastic cuts in import duties will not only impact livelihoods, but also deprive the government of crucial revenues for the provision of public services, asserted Prakash Devdas from the Mumbai Mahanagar Marmachari Mahasangh.
Another concern with respect to RCEP is the insertion of ‘new’ content like that on investment and e-commerce in the negotiations. RCEP will further empower corporations at international arbitration tribunals. The proposed investment chapter in RCEP allows for investors to sue governments, while bypassing domestic courts. India is already the target of 40% of all cases filed against RCEP countries, said Benny Kuruvilla from the Transnational Institute (TNI), citing a report that will be released in Hyderabad. The country also tops the ranking with regard to financial claims: India has been sued for at least 12.3 billion USD by foreign investors since 1994.
Kavaljit Singh of Madhyam added, “Already, there are strong protectionist sentiments against India’s software and services exports industry in key markets.” This means that countries are not receptive to India’s proposals for greater mobility of its service professionals abroad. Yet India’s ambitions for its IT and IT-enabled services could make its negotiating position ‘accommodate’ other demands in return, putting at risk vulnerable sectors that might be traded off in return for service liberalisation.”
With reference to the digital economy, there is a need to frame an independent digital industrialisation strategy that provides adequate protections to the Indian digital industry. Such an approach should enable retaining the immense value arising from the digitally-induced across-the-sectors efficiencies largely within our borders, along with protecting jobs as well as creating new high quality ones. Pre-emptive surrender of digital regulatory powers and possibilities will not allow this, and leave us completely exposed to monopolistic global digital value chains centred in the US, and increasingly also China. The impact of this is not only economic, but deep social, cultural and political as well,” according to Parminder Jeet Singh, IT For Change.
The media is urged to carry the voices from the People’s Summit Against FTAs and RCEP.
The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) is at the centre of the RCEP. The 16-member FTA is as much about further integrating ASEAN as a group, as it is about deepening and broadening economic integration amongst the ASEAN +6 members. The idea of RCEP was first introduced at an ASEAN Summit in 2011. The formal negotiations for RCEP were launched at an ASEAN Summit in 2012.
The 17th Round of RCEP talks were held in Manila through 2-12 May 2017. The 30th Summit of ASEAN preceded the RCEP Round in Manila. Therein the ten Southeast countries resolved to “uphold ASEAN Centrality”. The Philippines is currently the chair of the ASEAN. While it is so, the country is keen to complete the RCEP particularly before the 31st ASEAN Summit in November 2017, which will also be ASEAN’s 50-year anniversary.
People’s Resistance Forum
As part of the people’s mobilisations against RCEP, a wide spectrum of mass movements and local groups will gather in Hyderabad for a People’s Convention. This is part of a People’s Summit from 23rd-26th July that will also see workshops on access to medicines, Dalits and free trade, public services and RCEP, agriculture, fisheries, e-commerce, social security, manufacturing policy, as well as FTAs and WTO. These activities will run in parallel to the official government negotiations.
Following can be contacted for information on specific areas impacted by RCEP:
Biswajit Dhar (Economist and Professor): India’s FTA experience
Dinesh Abrol (Scientist and Professor): Political implications of FTAs
Shalini Bhutani (Legal Rresearch and Policy Analyst): Intellectual Property & Seed; ISDS
Ranja Sengupta (Third World Network): Agricultural Trade & Food Security
Kavaljit Singh (Madhyam): Investment & India’s model BIT
Parminder Jeet Singh (IT for Change): Impact on Indian digital industry
Leena Menghaney (MSF): Access to Medicines
Susana Barria: (PSI) Public services and labour issues
Kate Lappin (Asia Pacific Forum on Women, Law and Development (APWLD)): Gender Analysis of RCEP’s impact on public services, labour, agriculture
For analyses on different aspects of RCEP, please contact:
For further information, please contact:
Forum Against FTAs:
Urvashi Sarkar [email protected]