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India's free trade talks 'ignore' human rights, social justice, environmental impact

By Our Representative 

More than 130 organisations and civil society leaders have expressed concern at the lack of transparency and non-inclusive consultation processes adopted by the Union Government in the negotiations for entering into free trade, comprehensive economic partnership or investment related agreements. 
In an open letter to the Government of India, they have referred to the ongoing negotiations with several countries, including the United Kingdom, United States of America, Canada, Israel and the European Union.
Prominent among the signatories are Jawhar Sircar, Member of Parliament; Shailesh Gandhi, former Chief Information Commissioner; Madhu Bhaduri, former Ambassador; Medha Patkar, Narmada Bachao Andolan; Annie Raja, National Federation of Indian Women; Teesta Setalvad, social activist; Gautam Mody, NTUI; Prafulla Samantara and Meera Sanghamitra, National Alliance of People's Movements; Nikhil Dey, Mazdoor Kisan Shakti Sangathan; Kavita Krishnan, feminist activist; Leo Saldanha, Environment Support Group; Cedric Prakash, human rights activist; Devaki Jain, feminist economist; Dinesh Abrol, former professor, JNU; MG Devasahaym, former civil servant; and Sharad Behar, former Chief Secretary, Government of Madhya Pradesh.
The open letter has been released against the backdrop of the fifth round of negotiations between India and the European Union, currently ongoing in Brussels. India and the 27-nation bloc resumed negotiations in June 2022, after a gap of over eight years on the proposed agreements on trade and investments. 
Looking at the possible fallout of a non-transparent process, the open letter said, “This non-consultative and exclusionary process signals a disregard for the questions of human rights, social justice and environmental impacts that wider stakeholder involvement would put on the table.” 

Text:

We, citizens of India and representatives of organisations named below, are deeply concerned at and anguished by the lack of transparency and non-inclusive consultation processes adopted by the Union Government in the negotiations with a several countries such as the United Kingdom, United States of America, Canada, Israel and the European Union for entering into free trade, comprehensive economic partnership or investment related agreements. Despite its twin promises of greater openness in government and cooperative federalism, the NDA Government continues to pursue opaque and limited consultation processes that characterised similar free trade agreement (FTA) negotiations with other countries under previous regimes.
Even as we express our concerns on the subject, the European Commission (EC) is holding consultations and dialogues with civil society stakeholders in the EU member-states on the social impact assessment (SIA) of the proposed FTA with India. Meanwhile, we in India, are expected to be satisfied with an occasional tweet on the progress of the negotiations and brief press notes from the Commerce Ministry about the visit of high-level delegations. The rare statements made by the Commerce Minister or the Foreign Minister are aimed at captains of business and industry and the foreign media. The millions of farmers, workers, artisans, fisherfolk, small businesses, gig workers, home-based workers and others who will be affected by these FTAs are completely invisible in these communications.
In addition to its failure to proactively engage and share information with different stakeholders, the Union Government is also rejecting formal requests for even basic details about such matters. For example, an application submitted under the Right to Information Act, 2005 (RTI Act) seeking information about the agenda and the minutes of ministerial meetings with visiting EU delegations, representations received from business and trade representatives seeking to influence India’s position in the trade talks has been rejected by the Commerce Ministry on grounds of national security and trade secrets (see Annexure-1 and 2 for the text of the RTI application and the Ministry’s replies).
The Union Government’s rejection of even formal requests for information flies in the face of the mandate of the RTI Act for meaningful transparency in governance and stands in sharp contrast to the EC’s openness vis-a-vis its own stakeholders. Substantive reports of the four rounds of negotiations completed and the textual proposals submitted to the Government of India are all available on the website of the European Commission, for any person anywhere on the planet to access free of charge. 
What the EU is proposing for inclusion in the FTA on more than 20 topics such as trade in goods, services and investment, government procurement, intellectual property, sustainable food systems, small and medium-sized enterprises, digital trade, capital movements and state-owned enterprises are all publicly available on this website. 
The EU has even presented a textual proposal for both voluntary publication of information and responding to formal enquiries from persons about matters covered by the FTA. Unfortunately, there is no official intimation on this side of the Mediterranean about India’s response to the EU’s proposals or its own textual proposals about these matters. Maintaining opacity about India’s position on matters of immense public interest and importance can unfortunately give rise to serious suspicion as to whether the Government is being nose-led in the course of these talks.
Of particular concern to us is also the absence of an obligation on the Union Government to consult with Parliament on FTA-related matters. The Constitutional scheme of division of powers grants the Union Government a monopoly over matters relating to bilateral and multi-lateral treaties, including FTAs. Parliamentary approval post facto is also not mandated by the Constitution because the power of ratification also vests with the Executive i.e., the Union Government. However, the FTAs could result in the amendment or even scrapping of several Central legislations that are firmly in the domain of Parliament. Parliament must therefore deliberate on the implications of the proposed legislative changes for the lives, livelihoods and well-being of all citizens, particularly the most vulnerable groups.
The Commerce Ministry’s reply to one of the RTI queries states that it is holding consultations only with Industry Associations and relevant Ministries and Departments. This does not inspire much confidence. It is a matter of grave concern that State governments have not been consulted, despite the fact that FTAs cover subjects under the State List and the Concurrent List. The Union Government has also not opened up the consultation process to farmers’ associations, labour unions, environmental rights and human rights groups, consumer associations and many others who are legitimate and critically important stakeholders.
This non-consultative and exclusionary process signals a disregard for the questions of human rights, social justice and environmental impacts that wider stakeholder involvement would put on the table. We are concerned that ignoring these concerns at this stage will also undermine or short-circuit mandatory processes of environmental and social impact assessment.
On the other hand, we note that the EU has initiated consultations with civil society stakeholders to ascertain their views about the areas covered by the proposed FTA with India.
Given this starkly visible imbalance in the practice of transparency and inclusive consultation processes adopted by the negotiating partners, we demand that the Government of India immediately take the following steps.
  1. Give wide publicity and provide open access to proposals submitted to the EU by Government of India, as well as the responses to the textual proposals tabled by the EU which are publicly available.
  2. Give wide publicity and public access to the textual proposals received and responses submitted to other trading partners with whom FTA talks are going on.
  3. Create forums and platforms for public stakeholders and experts including civil society, academia and media representatives to submit their views on ongoing FTA negotiations with the EU and other countries.
  4. Ensure effective public participation in the negotiations by providing timely and comprehensive information on the status and details of the negotiations and holding dialogues and consultations with public stakeholders in India at each stage so that the negotiations are informed by the views and aspirations of all stakeholders.
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