The Congress Party is on weak ground when it protests its pro-farmer credentials on the question of the stalled WTO agreement on agriculture. Regardless of its protests, any honest reading of the agreement reached in Bali last year, to which then Commerce Minister Anand Sharma was a signatory, would clearly suggest that India was not duly mindful of the farmers’ interests. That a comma instead of an `or’ in an agreed resolution can make all the difference is illustrated duly by the faux pas committed by Sharma. Maybe, Sharma was under pressure not to upset the WTO applecart and allowed himself to be persuaded to sign the said agreement. The sticking point was this country’s stockholding of large tonnage of foodgrains to meet emergency needs and to fulfil commitments under various pro-poor schemes. Most members of the WTO were against the large stockpiling of food stocks, seeing it as an unfair agricultural subsidy. The Bali declaration clearly stated that an interim mechanism would be put in place till a permanent solution is found to the public stockholding of food for adoption by the 11th Ministerial Conference in 2017. In other words, India had a four-year window to work out an alternative mechanism for stockpiling such huge food stocks. On his return to India, Sharma had triumphantly claimed in Parliament that India had scored a big win in Bali, saying its view on food warehousing was accepted. However, last month at Geneva, the new commerce minister, Nirmala Sitharaman, surprised other nations by taking a tough stand against signing the agreement meant to endorse the Bali resolution. Since it was linked to the implementation of the Trade Facilitation Agreement, the latter fell through. The TFA seeks to ease trade among WTO nations by upgrading facilities at ports and moderating customs and removing other barriers. This agreement was to come into force from August 1, but India declined to approve it unless the agreement on agriculture was thrashed out to its satisfaction. It is true that India was isolated in Geneva, with countries like Cuba and Venezuela alone standing with it. But as Prime Minister Narendra Modi explained last week at the BJP plenary meeting, he was determined not to jeopardise the future of farmers for winning the approval of the western nations. Clearly, what he implied was that the previous Congress Government had not been mindful of farmers’ interests when it agreed to go along with the majority at Bali last December. The Congress Party reacted angrily against Modi’s statement, denying that it had bartered away Indian farmer’s cause at the Bali Conference. On Monday, the party forced an adjournment of the Rajya Sabha on the issue, claiming that the PM was wrong in blaming it for the Bali resolution. However, a reading of the Bali Agreement leaves no scope for confusion. Sharma had been outsmarted by the other interlocutors, unless it was all along his intent not to play hardball whatever the consequences for the country.
The vital difference is whether Sharma agreed to a four-year window until the 2017 11th Ministerial Conference of the WTO for India to align its agriculture policies with the world body or he bought time indefinitely till an agreement was reached to India’s satisfaction. That vital difference is made by the insertion of `or’ instead of a comma in the resolution. Several agriculture experts have said that Sharma signed the Bali agreement with his eyes wide open since he did not want to be seen subverting the wider consensus. And Modi and Commerce Minister Sitharaman insist that in Geneva it decided to defy that consensus only to protect the farmers’ interests. Anyone who cares to read the relevant texts of the two resolutions emanating from Bali and Geneva cannot but agree that Sharma failed to protest the national interest. Since the issue is bound to cause further confrontation between the ruling NDA and the Congress Party, it is important for the government to release fully the texts of the relevant agreements. Though India should try and avoid a confrontation at the WTO, its effort should also be to update the base year for factoring in various farm sector inputs for the agriculture agreement. Instead of considering prices at the 1986-88 level, the period should be 2010-12, so that a clearer picture on farm subsidies can be taken into account by the WTO. If this is done, an agreement on agriculture may become relatively easy. Meanwhile, Sharma should stop protesting his innocence, he did err in Bali last December.