All Newspaper editorials in one place – February 26, 2024



February 26, 2024

At the high table

The Raisina Dialogue lacked diversity in conversations on foreign policy


At the ninth edition of the annual Raisina Dialogue, External Affairs Minister S. Jaishankar called India a “bridging power”, a country seeking common ground through a “multi-vector” policy, and playing the role of a “Vishwamitra” or friend of the world. Such lofty ambitions are why the conference, launched by the Ministry of External Affairs, aims to engage global leaders on the big issues and challenges in the world. Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis, who inaugurated the event, spoke about the importance of connectivity projects such as the India-Middle East-Europe Economic Corridor. Global governance, the inequality at the top of the UN Security Council and the need for reform were discussed. India’s rightful place at the high table of global decision-making, or as Mr. Jaishankar put it, “to be a player, rather than a playing field”, was referred to repeatedly, as was India’s success in hosting the G-20 last year. Due to the G-20 Foreign Ministers Meeting in Brazil, there was no senior ministerial presence from the P-5 or the major G-7 or BRICS-10 countries. However, the large ministerial contingent from Central and Eastern Europe, which included all Ministers of the Baltic-Nordic forum, enabled a new diplomatic outreach for the government that is seeking trade agreements and investment ties with this part of Europe that is oft-overlooked but competitive, economically.


The greater part of the conversations, however, focused on global conflicts, with the heavy presence of the European dignitaries turning the spotlight on the Russian war in Ukraine, and panels on military and naval strategy concentrating on the need to handle an aggressive China. Unfortunately, these conversations did not strive for balance, as neither Russia nor China was invited. There was minimal presence from South East Asia, Latin America, and even South Asia (excepting Nepal and Bhutan); a larger presence may have offered more variegated positions and thrown light on the pressures they face from these conflicts. Panels on democracy understandably steered clear of the vibrant debates within India on the decline of freedoms, but the lack of non-governmental civil society organisations in the discourse produced a narrow view of the challenges that democracy faces worldwide. Notably absent were conversations focusing on the Israeli war in Gaza. Such omissions not only mean a lack of diversity in conversations at India’s premier forum for foreign policy thinking but they also take something away from Mr. Jaishankar’s otherwise sound observation that the Raisina Dialogue has become the “Made in India” version of the “Global Public Square”.





February 26, 2024

A new success

Space is an area that necessitates expansive collaboration


Moon landings are picking up pace for the second time in history, but now with more countries and novel definitions of success in the mix. Chandrayaan-3’s soft-landing confirmed that the Indian Space Research Organisation’s (ISRO) understanding of the technologies and processes involved and the choices it made — as an impressive space research and flight provider emerging from colonial shadows — are correct. Similarly, the failure of the Luna 25 mission would have taught Russia’s Roscosmos something about what it got wrong, particularly as a space agency whose reputation is on the wane after spectacular highs. On February 22, U.S.-based Intuitive Machines (IM) became the first private company to soft-land a robotic craft on the moon. The success of many space service providers in the U.S. is rooted in crucial support from NASA in their formative years. This is true in IM’s case as well, but with important distinctions. IM launched its Odysseus lander to the moon as part of NASA’s Commercial Lunar Payload Services (CLPS) programme, through which the agency is funding instruments onboard commercial missions to the moon hoping their findings will ease NASA’s eventual return to the natural satellite. IM’s Odysseus itself had a rocky last leg of the journey: as its descent got under way, the lander’s navigation instruments glitched, forcing IM engineers to quickly cobble together a fix and transmit it to the craft, instructing it to switch to an experimental NASA instrument onboard. After this hotfix, Odysseus appeared to have soft landed, but no confirmation was readily forthcoming due to a weak data link between the craft and antennae on the earth. The next day, IM said Odysseus may have tipped over but without consequence to most of its payloads, including six from NASA, and solar panels.


IM’s success testifies to the potential of the CLPS programme and could help extend it in future. NASA’s say in CLPS missions is limited to flagging interesting landing sites and providing some payloads. By 2020, it had contracted 14 companies to bid on missions, with its purse size of $2.6 billion. For the devolution of such critical responsibilities to be possible in any country, it needs, as the U.S. possesses, a healthy and diversified private space service landscape. This is the value of IM’s success within the context of the U.S. space programme. India recently approved up to 100% automatic foreign direct investment in parts of its national space programme, potentially paving the way for healthy competition among Indian start-ups to ease ISRO’s burden in future. Space is an area that necessitates expansive collaboration, among nations and within them.




February 26, 2024

Ways of spending

Release of consumption expenditure survey after long gap is important step towards filling data vacuum in country


The National Sample Survey Office conducts large-scale surveys on household consumption expenditure in the country, typically once every five years. These surveys not only inform about changes in household consumption expenditure patterns, but they also form the basis of poverty and inequality estimation. They are also used for drawing up the weighting diagram for the compilation of price indices used to measure retail inflation and for deriving other macroeconomic indicators. The results of the 2017-18 survey were not released by the government on grounds of issues of data quality — its leaked reports had shown a decline in consumption expenditure. This had meant that till now the last survey data available was for 2011-12. It is thus welcome news that the government has released the broad results of the consumption survey carried out in 2022-23.


The latest survey shows that, in rural areas, household consumption expenditure has risen from Rs 1,430 in 2011-12 to Rs 3,773 in 2022-23, and in urban areas from Rs 2,630 to Rs 6,459. At 2011-12 prices, this translates to an increase of 3.1 per cent per year in rural areas, and 2.7 per cent in urban areas. The disaggregated data throws up several interesting trends. As household incomes have continued to grow, expenditure on food has continued to fall. In rural areas, the share of food in the spending basket has declined from 52.9 per cent in 2011-12 to 46.4 per cent in 2022-23, while in urban areas it has fallen from 42.6 per cent to 39.2 per cent. The dip in the case of cereals has been even more dramatic — from 10.7 per cent to 4.9 per cent in rural areas, and from 6.6 per cent to 3.6 per cent in urban areas. Households are now allocating a greater share for nutritional items such as eggs, fish and meat, milk and fruits, as well as on beverages, refreshments and processed foods. In fact, spending on beverages and processed food is now more than that on cereals and pulses combined. And milk and milk products are now the second highest item in the consumption basket. A greater share of spending is also now being directed towards education, health and conveyance and on consumer durables and services. As household incomes rise and expenditure on essential items falls, discretionary spending will rise further.


With the release of the detailed survey data, it will now be possible to arrive at an understanding of the trends in poverty and inequality in India over the past decade or so — a period marked by considerable changes in the economy. This survey data will also help in updating the consumer price index, which is a valuable input for monetary policy. For instance, the consumer price index currently assigns a weight of 12.35 per cent to cereals in rural areas. But cereals now account for only 4.89 per cent of the household consumption basket. The release of this survey also marks an important step towards filling the data vacuum in the country. The next government should take this forward, initiate the much delayed census exercise and take steps to strengthen the country’s statistical system.






February 26, 2024

An open book

CBSE’s experiment with examination format should spur conversations on making education reform more effective


Examinations should be seen as a part of the overall academic assessment of students. The Indian examination system, however, especially from senior secondary school onwards, was designed as an elimination process in the early years of the last century — it’s a product of times when higher education avenues were far fewer and jobs even scarcer. With minor tweaks, this system continues even today. The toll taken by such elimination tests on the mental health of students is well-documented. In 2022, for instance, an NCERT survey revealed that around 80 per cent students in grades 9 to 12 suffer from exam-related anxiety. The Central Board of Secondary Education’s (CBSE) decision to conduct a pilot study to test the feasibility of open book exams (OBE) for Classes 9 to 12 is, therefore, immensely welcome. The pilot will reportedly be conducted in November-December for select subjects.


OBE experiments were conducted as early as the 1930s in institutions such as Rabindranath Tagore’s Visva Bharati. However, such examinations are today held only in select higher education institutions. In India’s school system, OBE is a relatively new concept. The CBSE did allow students of Classes 9 and 11 to refer to study material during annual tests in 2014. The examination authority, however, discontinued the practice three years later because of its “inability to cultivate critical faculties” amongst students. The Board’s new move fits in with the paradigm shift envisaged by NEP 2020 — though the policy does not explicitly mention OBEs, it lays store on transiting from rote-based information gathering to competency-based learning and developing analytical skills.


The OBE pilot is also in line with the NEP’s emphasis on making learning processes more student- and teacher-centric. The scheme will require pedagogical changes and demand more creativity from teachers. Their role will not be restricted to being mere transmitters of information in textbooks. Instruction will, instead, be more about mentoring and facilitating the young, all of whom may not learn at the same pace. The assessment of the analytical abilities of students could also become a test of their writing and language skills. Educators will have a big role in making sure that this does not aggravate older forms of inequality and work against NEP’s inclusivity-centred approach. For this, they will also need to read answer scripts more carefully and empathetically. Periodic upscaling of teachers’ skills is, in fact, one of NEP’s emphasis areas. The CBSE has also said that it will take feedback from teachers after the first round of the OBEs. In the coming months and years, the examination body and other education planners should hold more conversations to fine-tune this reform and make it more effective.




February 26, 2024

Good, Can Be Better

That urban, rural spend on food is falling shows rising incomes. But consumption growth is lagging GDP growth


India’s economic data has a modular design. Many population sample surveys are carried out to get a closer look at specific areas such as consumption. Based on that, macro measures such as GDP and consumer price index are constructed.


Better late than never | GOI on Saturday published highlights of a household consumer survey carried out between Aug 2022 and July 2023. It’s the first such survey in 11 years of what used to be a five-yearly effort. It will lead to updates of GDP and inflation indices.


Poverty’s downward trend | Typically, as incomes increase, people spend less on food. Expenditure shifts towards other items. Relative expenditure on food continues to decline. More importantly, among different items of food, relative expenditure on cereals has not only declined, but there’s also near convergence on percentage expenditure between rural and urban residents. Rural consumers on average spent 46% of their MPCE on food in 2022-23. In 1999-00, the spend was 59%. Urban consumers in 2022-23 set aside 39% of MPCE on food, as compared to 48% in 1999-00. Niti Aayog estimates that unit-level MPCE data will show poverty level has fallen to about 5% and inflation is overstated.


Cereal question | Rural consumers on average spent 5% of their MPCE on cereals while in urban areas it was 4%. Two aspects stand out. Over two decades back, rural consumers spent about 10 percentage points more in their MPCE on cereals. The narrowing gap on a staple in Indian thalis indicates relative deprivation of rural consumers in areas other than food. Also, if cereals are such a small proportion of consumption, doesn’t India’s food subsidy regime require reconfiguration?


But still a weak consumption story | The last consumer survey was done in 2011-12. In 11 years, rural consumption in inflation-adjusted terms grew at an average annual growth rate of 3.1%. Urban consumption growth rate was 2.7%, slower than the rural growth. GDP, a measure of the economic output, grew during the same 11-year period at an annual average of 5.7%. India’s consumption growth has been lagging its output expansion. Two of its consequences are dissatisfaction among groups such as farmers and a tilt towards welfarism by political parties. A point here. Fiscal impact of welfare is a hot button topic among pundits. But to what extent did welfare transfer boost the average rural MPCE? A mere 2%. Not something noise on welfare would suggest.




February 26, 2024

Not Seating Pretty

Oppn seat sharing finally starts. But big, possibly unsolvable problems remain


In what must be a huge relief for Congress, its seat-sharing exercise with INDIA alliance partners is finally producing some results. Congress has stitched up deals with SP in UP and MP and AAP in Delhi, Haryana, Gujarat, Goa and Chandigarh. But huge challenges remain.


AAP together | Congress and AAP announced a 3-4 split in AAP’s favour in Delhi. AAP will also contest Baruch and Bhavnagar seats in Gujarat and Kurukshetra in Haryana. But Punjab, where AAP is a key player, is not part of the deal. Even in states where Congress-AAP have deals, the question is whether there will be any complementarity, given AAP’s small size in all but Delhi and given both parties’ similar vote base.


UP ke ladke | Of bigger significance is the deal in UP where SP will contest 63 seats and Congress the remaining 17. But it will still be an uphill task. Modi will practically be on every BJP ticket with the party turning the polls into a referendum on him. Add to this BJP’s successful targeting of OBC votes barring Yadavs, and it already has a formidable caste coalition in UP. So, just Akhilesh and Rahul portraying themselves as ‘UP boys’ won’t probably cut it.


Bengal bungle | Mamata is still not playing ball but Bengal’s 42 seats will be crucial to INDIA. This is also where it has a good chance of putting BJP on the mat through a joint campaign. But with local units of both CPM and Congress fighting Trinamool on the ground, both parties’ central leaderships are finding it difficult to negotiate with Mamata.


Maharashtra pickle | The state’s 48 seats are poised for a fratricide battle royal with rival Sena and NCP factions. It’s tricky for NDA too. By pushing through another Maratha quota legislation, NDA may have gained an advantage. But reports suggest Congress, Sena (UBT) and Sharad Pawar’s NCP already have a deal for 39 seats. Opposition here will think it has a fighting chance. With Tamil Nadu (39 seats) and Bihar (40 seats) unlikely to pose much seat-sharing hiccups for INDIA, it must get Maharashtra and Bengal done. Minus this, it’s hard to see how INDIA will take the fight to BJP.





February 26, 2024

Make Remittances Cheaper, WTO

India offering UPI as a viable means globally


India has the loudest voice in seeking to lower the global average cost of money transfer, being the largest contributor to the international migrant workforce, as well as recipient of the biggest remittance inflow. This will be a key area of interest for New Delhi at the WTO ministerial meet that starts today in Abu Dhabi. India’s concern over the slow decline in cross-border payment levels, which average over twice the 3% target, is guided by its own proactivity in creating cheap facilitating digital infrastructure. It is offering its publicly-funded instant real-time payments system UPI as a viable means to bring down remittance costs.


Digital money transfers are pulling down cost of remittances. The global average cost of sending $200 in Q3 2023 was 6.18%, a marginal decline from the preceding quarter, with digital remittances costing almost 2percentage points less than cash transfers. This is still 1.18 percentage points higher than the G20 target of 5%. Lower average cost of remittances in G8 economies than in G20 is partly attributable to the larger share of digital transfers. Mobile wallets remain the cheapest method of funding and disbursing a transfer, although funding costs are gaining on alternative means such as bank transfers, cash, and credit or debit cards.


Every percentage point decline in the global average remittance cost saves the global economy a little over $3 billion a year. Digital adoption offers a way out, and the agenda can be better implemented through multilateral agency than by offers of free infra. India has to be proactive at MC13 on lowering remittance costs across pathways and along all corridors. Alongside, it will need persuasive bilateral negotiations to increase flows in local currencies to pull down the forex margin in remittance transfer. Interlinked systems for digital payments in local currency is the cheapest solution available for transferring remittances.





February 26, 2024

Parochialism Stifles Economic Growth


Last week, the Karnataka government thankfully backpedalled from its decision of asking businesses to display the number of Kannadigas they employ publicly. This course correction, prompted by criticism from senior industry leaders, is welcome. The self-defeating policy smacked majoritarian nativism and threatened the state’s reputation for being business-friendly — a reputation crucial to Karnataka’s and, indeed, India’s economic prosperity. The now-abandoned initiative was part of a series of ‘Kannadiga First’ measures introduced by the Siddaramaiah government. Good riddance to bad rubbish.


Nativist tendencies are, however, not unique to Karnataka. Variations of ‘pro-local’ policies have surfaced periodically in states like Haryana, Maharashtra and Tamil Nadu. But they did not work in other states for the same reason: they are economically self-damaging.


Karnataka, of all states, must acknowledge the benefits it has reaped from constitutionally-guaranteed freedom of movement and emphasis on meritocracy. The state boasts a thriving IT sector and significant PSUs, especially in defence, and serves as a hub for higher education. These successes have been possible because Karnataka has attracted the best talent from across India and the world, thanks to its cosmopolitan and open approach critical for innovation and growth. While nurturing local talent, language, culture and businesses is essential, any policy undermining meritocracy or restricting freedom of movement must be avoided. An insular approach will stifle economic opportunities, affecting locals. Imposing actual or implicit quotas will drive businesses away from the state, hindering innovation and economic growth. The same logic holds for all other states and the country.




February 26, 2024

Sandeshkhali shame

Trinamool shown up for land grab, sexual abuse


For a party that rose to power on the back of a movement to protect agricultural land in Singur and Nandigram way back in 2006-07, the wheel would seem to have come full circle for the Trinamool Congress. The political maelstrom that has broken out over Sandeshkhali, a tiny village in North 24 Parganas district, virtually divests the ruling party in West Bengal of any claims of being party committed to rule of law and gender justice dark irony indeed for a party which runs on the popular slogan of ‘Ma, Maatiy Manush’.


This trope appears farcical in the face of testimonies of local women who have come out describing how men allegedly protected by the local Trinamool Congress strongman Sheikh Shahjahan and his aides Uttam Sardar and Shibaprasad Hazra have been sexually exploiting them for years. A particularly explicit video depicts a local woman protestor describing how these men would pick them out and force them to come to the Trinamool Congress party office where they would be sexually assaulted. This went on alongside widespread incidents of land grab allegedly aided by local Trinamool Congress henchmen led by Shahjahan Sheikh. The party brass clearly looked the other way as these men usurped arable land from the common people and converted them into prawn farms. The spoils of this lucrative land grab were shared among the goons for years.


What lifted the lid from this can of worms was an Enforcement Directorate (ED) raid on Sheikh Shahjahan on January 5 during which the ED officials were violently attacked. While Sheikh has been absconding since, it emboldened the local women to come out in large numbers to accuse him and his men of usurping their land and sexually exploiting them for years. These accusations sparked protests and tensions escalated when villagers carrying sticks and bamboo canes set Uttam Sardar’s poultry farms in fire. The properties of the other man under fire, Shibaprasad Hazra, were also set ablaze. A large number of women have taken to the streets demanding the arrest of Sheikh Shahjahan and his aides.


That the BJP might have seized upon it for political advantage before the general elections can be no excuse to brush this off as mere political rabble-rousing. The harbouring and protection of men like Sheikh Shahjahan clearly speaks of a systemic perversion. The fact is that neither has the Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee come out with a strong condemnation of the sordid episode nor have the police arrested Sheikh Shahjahan so far. It is unfortunate that such brazen abuse of power and exploitation of women should happen under the watch of a woman Chief Minister. Instead of crying political vendetta, the urgent need is for the State Government to restore the public’s faith by bringing the guilty to justice and restore usurped land to its rightful owners in Sandeshkhali.





February 26, 2024

Red signal for green dilution

SC underlines the need for better compliance


The Supreme Court has administered an important corrective, directing the government to follow the wider “dictionary definition” of forests as laid down in a two-Bench judgment of the apex court in 1996. The latest judgment was passed by a three-judge Bench on several petitions against the amendments to the Forest Conservation Act (FCA), passed by both Houses of Parliament in 2023. These amendments made the FCA applicable only to notified forest and land identified as “forest” in government records. The stated reason for the amendments was that the 1996 judgment applied the provisions of the FCA to recorded forests that had been put to non-forest uses. This had been a long-standing demand of infrastructure ministries, particularly of roads and highways. But petitioners against the amendments had suggested that millions of hectares of forests stood to be declassified as a result. More worryingly, the amendments had allowed zoos and safaris to be set up inside forests. As a result, Haryana, for instance, had planned an animal safari park in the pristine forest of the Aravallis. The Supreme Court’s order also stipulated that all such plans required court approval. While reverting to the 1996 definition for forests, the Supreme Court has also asked the government to prepare a consolidated record of all kinds of forests across the country. This means that states and Union Territories have to submit records of forests identified by expert committees set up under the 1996 judgment. The government has the deadline of April 15 to submit this data.


This judgment is one of several by the judiciary in restoring some semblance of balance against the steady weakening of environmental laws in recent years on the pretext of development. One decision, which is pending a Supreme Court appeal, is to grant retrospective approval to companies that had not complied with conditions to obtain environmental clearance under the Environmental Protection Act. Over 100 projects in such environmentally damaging industries as cement, coal, iron and steel, bauxite and limestone mining were granted exemption under this 2017 provision until the Supreme Court stayed it this year. Meanwhile, in 2022, the Union environment ministry had proposed to scrap the need for environmental approval for a raft of infrastructure projects — highways, airports, fishing ports, thermal power plants, and so on — located within 100 km of the Line of Control or an international border. Later, following dissent notes from some Opposition parties, a joint parliamentary committee clarified this would not entail “blanket permission” and was not open to the private sector. Given the ecologically sensitive nature of India’s border areas, whether in the mountains or on the coast, this clarification is unlikely to allay environmentalists’ fears. Land subsidence across several towns in Uttarakhand remains a cautionary tale of the dangers of over-construction.


The government has frequently wielded security or development needs as reasons for overriding green checks and balances. For instance, it said the rationale for the 2023 amendments to the FCA was that the law came in the way of building schools, toilets, and facilities for tribals. However, the amendment was redundant because the Forest Rights Act enabled the government to override the FCA and divert forest land for such projects. Given the rapid scale of degradation of India’s natural bounty, as the state of the forests reports highlight with depressing regularity the trend towards looser environmental controls in the name of development urgently needs to be revisited.





February 26, 2024

Munich AI accord

Big Tech commits itself to countering election misuse


On Friday, the world’s 20 largest tech companies and social-media platforms signed an accord, “The Tech Accord to Combat Deceptive Use of AI in 2024 Elections”, at the Munich Security Conference. This is a commitment to prevent deceptive artificial-intelligence (AI) content from interfering in elections. It is timely — over 40 nations, including India, the US, and the UK, are slated to vote in new governments in 2024, affecting the fate of over four billion people. Harmful AI-generated content meant to deceive voters could cast a malignant shadow over democratic processes. The signatories will collaborate to detect and address online distribution of fake AI content, drive educational campaigns, and provide transparency about AI usage in generating political content. The accord also includes a broad set of principles, such as the importance of tracking the origin of deceptive political content and the need to raise public awareness about it. Using modern tools, it is easy to generate authentic-seeming audio visual (AV) content featuring a politician, or indeed anybody.


The use of AI as such may not be harmful to democratic processes. Campaigns legitimately using AI should label and flag it, and it should not be deceptively deployed. Imran Khan’s political party, the Pakistan Tehreek-e-Insaf (PTI), used AI to generate speeches penned by him during the recent Pakistan elections and this allowed him to campaign from behind bars. However, AI was also used in the recent New Hampshire (US) presidential primaries to generate fake robocalls in Joe Biden’s voice to dissuade voters from turning up. The content the accord addresses could be AI-generated audio, video, or images that fake or alter the appearance, voice, or actions of political candidates and election officials, or provide false information about voting processes. This could be done to discredit a politician, or distort a political message, or confuse voters and dissuade them from exercising their franchise.


The accord aims to develop methods to identify deceptive content, label it, and prevent dissemination on their platforms. Meta, X, Google, LinkedIn, IBM, Adobe, OpenAI, Amazon, TikTok, and Microsoft are signatories. A successful collaborative effort by them would restrict the spread of such content on large social media platforms or search engines. Moreover, many key players developing AI tools, such as OpenAI, are also signatories. They could try to monitor use of AI tools, or deny access to these for generating political content.


But such tools are also evolving. It will not be an easy task to prevent AI usage or detect deceptive content, and check it from going viral. It is unclear how this is to be accomplished. It will take a big research and development effort by the industry to detect and label AI usage in political AV content, and to discover the originators of such stuff. Moderating it would also be a huge task. Lawmakers would have to cooperate, and some may be reluctant to do so if the content concerned aids their cause. Moreover, it needs to be pointed out that a “bad actor” using AI to make political content need not necessarily be hired by a political party. It could be an overseas agency pushing the agenda of another nation. Or, it may be somebody trying to create engagement, using political content as “clickbait”. It is important that this campaign is not merely symbolic due to the high stakes. If the signatories don’t get it right, democratic processes could indeed be subverted with terrible global outcomes.





February 26, 2024

India at MC13

Trade liberalisation pays under fair rules, but ‘it’s the economy, stupid’


More than two decades of stalemate on the ambitious “Doha Round” and the relapse to regionalism and protectionism during this period are proof enough that unhindered world trade is a prematurely celebrated concept. With the benefit of hindsight, it is now clear that developing countries, including India, were gullible to the West’s opportunistic advocacy of multilateralism as a virtue in itself in the final decades of the last century—first under GATT, and since 1995, at the World Trade Organization (WTO). China bought this notion only grudgingly, and faced much opprobrium for it, but the country has eventually proved to be the biggest beneficiary of the economic globalisation project. Its share in world trade surged from just above 1% during early 1980s to about 15% now. Meanwhile, the original proponents of liberalisation not only made a retreat but would even weaken the cornerstone of the rule-based multilateralism that is the WTO court (dispute settlement body).


Beijing, however, is busy exploring all strategic options at its disposal, to further its economic and trade interests, including the strengthening of the Asia-Pacific axis (RCEP and CPTPP), and the stage provided by the WTO. So, as the WTO’s 13th ministerial conference (MC13) begins in Abu Dhabi today, it looks certain that with nearly 130 countries on board, the China-led Investment Facilitation for Development (IFD) plan would pass muster, and carve out a legitimate “plurilateral” space within the WTO framework.  It’s interesting that the US finds itself on the side of key emerging market economies like India, Brazil and South Africa that oppose the IFD. But the “Doha Agenda” or further liberalisation of world trade via a rule-based, inclusive system, would likely remain in deep freeze for a longer period.


To be sure, a key Doha mandate was “to reduce, or… eliminate tariffs …as well as non-tariff barriers, in particular on products of export interest to developing countries.” MC13 is seen to offer precious little to this end. With the core mandate intractable, the conference is expected to focus on issues like “trade and environment”, labour and gender. These are fast becoming important tools to influence trade, but aren’t going to do as much to impart a strong impetus to the stagnant world trade, and could hurt the interests of India. The good thing is that New Delhi is now much wiser and is keenly aware of the pitfalls of bad trade deals, as much as of the potential gains from “free trade” in the real sense of the term.


At MC13, India has a high stake to protect, and that is the integrity of WTO. As a low middle income economy still at the early high-growth phase, WTO remedies for dumping, non-tariff barriers etc. are very useful for the country. It’s crucial for India to get the dispute settlement body revived, as a reasonably neutral arbiter. The country would continue to need reprieve on public stock-holding of food grains, though this is an issue that was unfairly pitted against it, in the first place. The discontinuation of PMGKAY, the scheme for extra free grains for PDS, and the likely expansion of the cash-transfer-for-food-subsidy project would reduce public grain stocks, and resolve the issue over time. Liberal trade helps only if the economy is globally competitive, and here is where India’s policymakers still have a big task at hand. The stunted growth in labour-intensive exports doesn’t behove a fast-growing country.


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