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Corporatizing Indian agriculture 'to enhance' farmer efficiency, market competitiveness

By Shashank Shukla* 

Today, amidst the ongoing farmers' protest, one of the key demands raised is for India to withdraw from the World Trade Organization (WTO). Let us delve into the feasibility of such a move and explore its historical context within India's globalization trajectory.
India embarked on the path of globalization, opening its doors to the world. In 1947, a multilateral agreement known as the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs (GATT) was signed by 153 countries to regulate international trade, primarily focusing on minimizing barriers such as quotas, tariffs, and subsidies. The GATT was succeeded by the establishment of the World Trade Organization (WTO), originating from the Uruguay Round of talks (1986-94), which commenced operations on January 1, 1995. Unlike GATT, the WTO encompasses not only goods but also services and intellectual property rights.
The crux of the farmers' demand lies in their apprehension towards WTO regulations. The Cairns Group, comprising countries like Australia, Brazil, and Canada, has raised objections against the subsidies provided to Indian farmers by the Government of India, citing violations of WTO agreements. The WTO delineates three forms of subsidies:
  • Green Box: This method allows states to provide unlimited benefits and subsidies for research and development to enhance the quality and quantity of production.
  • Amber Box: Governments utilize this method to ensure agricultural produce remains competitively priced in the market, thereby guaranteeing maximum returns for farmers. In India, subsidies are extended to reduce input costs, such as those on fertilizers, seeds, and other micronutrients. Additionally, the government procures crops at Minimum Support Prices (MSP).
  • Blue Box: This method permits governments to provide support linked to production, subject to production limits, with minimal trade distortion.
The issue primarily revolves around India's utilization of the Amber Box method. Developed countries are permitted a 5% subsidy allowance, while developing nations like India can avail themselves of up to 10% subsidies. However, India's subsidies, including MSP and agricultural input subsidies, surpass the prescribed limits. For instance, under the PRANAM Scheme, farmers can purchase Neem Coated Urea at a subsidized rate of Rs. 242 per 45KG, whereas the market price is around Rs. 2200. The government has allocated approximately 3.7 lakh crores to implement this scheme, benefiting numerous farmers.
The challenge arises when these subsidies result in Indian produce being priced lower than that of overseas farmers, raising objections from groups like the Cairns Group and WTO. Despite being a WTO member, India justifies its subsidies under the "Peace Treaty Clause," asserting that they are essential for ensuring food security and alleviating hunger crises. India has also secured agricultural reserves for up to two years through various warehousing facilities to mitigate food insecurity.
The challenge arises when these subsidies result in Indian produce being priced lower than that of overseas farmers
In addition to objections regarding subsidies, WTO members such as Australia and the EU have scrutinized India's export subsidies, particularly concerning sugar exports to countries like Iraq, Sri Lanka, and the UAE. Moreover, concerns have been raised about India's MSP for cotton. India has justified these measures as responses to factors like increased production costs.
Despite the contentious issues surrounding subsidies and WTO regulations, it is imperative for India to remain within the WTO framework for several reasons:
  • India's participation in the global market is essential for revenue generation and improving the quality of goods and services, benefiting both Indian entrepreneurs and consumers.
  • India relies on imports for various goods and services, necessitating WTO protection to safeguard against adverse impacts on import-dependent sectors.
  • India's emergence as a digital powerhouse and a global pharma giant is facilitated by access to cheaper electronic goods, APIs, and technology transfer, all of which are facilitated by WTO agreements.
  • Lowering tariffs and easing restrictions, facilitated by collaboration with the WTO, attracts significant foreign direct investment, creating jobs and boosting the economy.
  • Access to technology transfer through the WTO enhances Indian businesses' capacity for innovation and upgrading.
However, India must raise concerns about issues such as loss of tariff revenue, agricultural dumping, and the impact of WTO pressure on intellectual property laws. Addressing these concerns while leveraging the benefits of WTO membership is crucial for India's economic growth and sustainability in the global arena.
Conclusion: While India has benefited from the Peace Treaty Clause, it is imperative to consider the sustainability of this approach. 
The reliance on subsidies, particularly within the Amber Box framework, has led to a stalemate between the interests of Indian farmers and consumers. To navigate this challenge, policymakers must explore alternative strategies that prioritize long-term sustainability and mutual benefits. Embracing the Green Box approach, which emphasizes research and development (R&D), presents a promising avenue to bolster Indian agriculture without excessive reliance on subsidies. 
Additionally, corporatizing the agriculture sector can enhance efficiency and competitiveness in both domestic and international markets. Rather than resorting to short-term fixes like increasing MSPs and subsidies to score political points, a concerted effort towards finding permanent solutions is essential to ensure the prosperity of Indian agriculture and the welfare of its stakeholders. 
Furthermore, India needs to adopt an open and free-market model to ensure effective gains on agricultural produce, benefiting farmers automatically without the need for MSPs. This transition requires significant investment in infrastructure to support such an economic model.
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*Political and economic commentator

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