India hosted the 19th trade round of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership(RCEP) from 17th to 28th of July in Hyderabad. It gathered over 500 negotiators from the 16 countries who are involved in the construction of this agreement. On July 23rd and 24th the People’s Convention against Free Trade Agreements and RCEP took place in Hyderabad, a parallel meeting to share information about the consequences of this agreement and to publicly express an opposition, by demonstration.
This Free Trade Agreement (FTA) launched in 2012, aims to create a large economic zone where the trade in services, investments, intellectual property, goods and so on will be “facilitated”. The variety of sectors covered by this agreement are reflected in the opposition of many organisations and associations like Telangana Rythu JAC, All India Kisan Sabha, All India Kisan Mazdoor Sabha, Rythu Swarjya Vedika, All India Coordination Committee of Farmers’ Movements, Public Services International, All India Trade Unions’ Congress, Centre of Indian Trade Unions, Indian National Trade Union Congress, Telangana Medical Sales Representatives’ Union, Dalit Women’s Union, National Alliance of Dalit Organisations, Jana Vignana Vedika, Telangana Vidyavanthula Vedika, T-JAC, Dalit Bahujan Front, Doctors’ without Borders, National Alliance of People’s Movements and Telangana Praja Front, which were all present at the Convention. Some representatives from Philippines, Japan, Indonesia and Thailand also came to demonstrate the united and international nature of this struggle, against a project which only removes safeguard for workers in all countries.
The reasons for this opposition are numerous. Firstly the entire process remains a secret and out of the control of the populations. The matter has not yet been brought up in the Indian Parliament for discussion. None of the State governments have been officially informed, much less been asked for their opinion. Afsar Jafri, of the Focus on the Global South, recently asked, “Should the states not be consulted on issues which are greatly going to affect them? The lack of Parliamentary scrutiny and debate is also a major concern.” No civil society organisation can have access at the working documents or be present during the discussions and governmental debates. This lack of transparency has created fear of some antidemocratic resolutions in the final agreement and hence must be condemned in itself.
Also, according to the past experiences on FTA consequences and the few declarations and leaked documents already analysed, several threats on a large number of sectors are expected. The drastic reduction of tariffs (around 80% in some cases) on goods imported is an immediate risk for small Indian businesses and workers that depend on it. The open concurrency of cheap Chinese goods can indeed encourage the businesses to depress wages and working conditions and in numerous cases destroying employment. Moreover, the parties involved plan on creating an Investor-State Dispute Settlement Court (ISDS) which the coprorate companies can apporach in case of any dispute, where suing the States, avoiding payment of taxes and overstepping environmental laws will all be served on a platter to them.
In addition, according to leaked documents, the access for generic and low-cost medicine seems to be threatened. In India, medicines for HIV are affordable and accessible to the public at large due to previous development in that field. The local production and sale of these medicines at cheaper prices will be affected massively once this FTA comes into effect. In the RCEP agreement South Korean and Japanese governments ask for a longer monopoly for patent holding pharmaceutical companies, by extending the already 20 year old delay, after which generic versions of a medicine can be produced. During this extended delay, those companies will thus be allowed to sell their high price products without any concurrence. This will make it impossible for most people to have access to the new medicines.
Finally, this FTA is a major risk for Indian agriculture sector and especially for small farmers. As for goods imports, the tariff cuts on imported agricultural products in India may result in the destruction of a lot of jobs. The dairy sector in particular will suffer from the unequal competition of New Zealander and Australian low costs products. It should also be noted that, once again, farmers’ free access and use of their seeds will be threatened. In order to protect big companies’ intellectual property rights of these seeds, this agreement aims to make it illegal for farmers to exchange, save and reuse it whereas making it easier for the seed companies to export and import it.
Another consequence of RCEP is the monopoly over rights of seeds. In India, legislation provides farmers a right over the seeds they grow – to store, sell, share or sow. Japan and Korea, which are part of the RCEP and also have major seed companies in India are pushing for Intellectual Property rights of the seeds being granted to corporates. This is along the lines of the 1991 UPOV Convention in Europe, which imposes serious restrictions on farmers’ usage of their seeds and also much research and development on IP-protected seeds. This will only encourage corporate plant breeders to patenting plants while destroying seed variety and crop diversity.
To face those major threats, the different representatives at the People’s Convention adopted a declaration in which they affirmed the multi-sector nature of the opposition to this agreement and reminded everyone about the past FTA experiences, “Dalits, Adivasis, small farmers, unorganized workers, denotified tribes, minorities, women and children stand to lose the most in this game. Those who gain will be the big corporations.” Then, they called the governments to stop the negotiations on RCEP and other FTAs, they demanded transparency in such negotiations and finally, said that “all state governments and political parties should declare their stand on RCEP and other FTAs.”
“RCEP go back!”
On 24thJuly a demonstration gathering hundreds of people started from Peoples’ Plaza, carrying slogans like “Don’t trade our lives away!”, “Yes to co-operative democracy, no to corporate democracy”, “Farmers need better price, not cheap import”. Despite the hostility of the authorities, who didn’t allow the demonstrators to reach the city centre where the negotiations took place, the participants were determined to make their voices heard and walked on Necklace Road.
The next step is the Manila governmental conference on September 2017, where all the concerned ministers will try to finalise the agreement, which is to be adopted at the end of 2017. More demonstrations and discussions, on the people’s side, such as the People’s Convention at Hyderabad, are being planned in order to ensure that the RCEP agreement does not go through without inclusion of and debate with all affected parties.
“All the diverse groups at this People’s Convention stand for social, economic and environmental justice. We stand for a new vision of development and trade that creates dignified jobs, sustainable farming, quality public services, respects democratic decision-making and the principles of substantive equality, socialism, and of federalism enshrined in the Constitution of India.”
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Contributions (Notes and Pictures)- Akhilesh and Corentin