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Parliament must ratify external trade pacts

Parliament must ratify external trade pacts
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Thankfully, the process of negotiation between India and European Union for a Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) has not been able to...

Thankfully, the process of negotiation between India and European Union for a Bilateral Trade and Investment Agreement (BTIA) has not been able to conclude in April. There was a major concern expressed by wide sections of public spirited individuals and entities about the nature and content of this process.

It's a pity that constitutional provision on international agreements is a grey area. While our Constitution is quite explicit about the powers of the three organs on which the edifice of our nation state rests, this is indeed so. A re-reading of the Constitution clearly suggests that the Constitution- makers contemplated the ongoing arrangement that the executive can finalise an international agreement without any reference, not to speak of actual ratification, to the legislature for a limited period.

This was in a situation where the parliamentary majority was inherently invested in the government. A But today, the situation has changed radically. Not only are we in a coalition era � but successive governments have survived on outside support. This essentially underlines the minority status of the executive.

In such a context, the presumption that the government represents majority of the parliament and implicitly has the parliament's approval for concluding international agreements is fallacious. The contrarian implication is quite serious. The Government which may not have support of the parliament on a specific issue may conclude an agreement, and thus making it fait accomplice for the parliament to forgo its sovereign rights over legislative powers. Therefore, this question warrants a revisit.

We have seen in the past, particularly with respect to the WTO accord that the parliament was forced to legislate afresh or initiate amendments to existing enactments to comply with the provisions of the accord. This was a direct encroachment on the sovereignty of our parliament.

The recent development regarding the Supreme Court's order on the Novartis case clearly brought out that despite severe limitation imposed by the provisions of TRIPS, the parliament in its collective wisdom could formulate certain saving clauses to stop the criminal attempt by a pharmaceutical multinational to 'evergreen' their patent.

This was possible because of the discretion that was exercised by the parliament to salvage interests of cancer patients of the country. But notwithstanding this limited success of parliament's exercise of sovereign law making, constraints imposed by TRIPS and other such agreements do affect its autonomy. It is taking umbrage behind this constitutional grey area; UPA II has embarked in its negotiations with European Union for a free trade agreement. However, opacity has been a hallmark of this exercise.A One does not even know that whether there has been any impact assessment of hitherto international agreements on specific areas of economic activity, national life and livelihood resulting from such agreements.

On whatever limited information is available on the process, there are reasons to believe that this broadbased trade and investment agreement with European Union is perhaps the most ambitious and comprehensive of all such FTAs signed so far. Given the range of areas which will be covered by the proposed accord will have- far reaching consequences on the economy and the social fabric of the nation. The impact will be protracted.

Indian establishment has already accepted current account deficit as a major challenge facing the economy. Experiences of some of the existing FTAs show that these have led to worsening of the country's trade deficit. To cite an example the FTA with Singapore has rendered an earlier trade surplus quickly to a deficit.

Supposedly, the proposed BTIA will cover areas of intellectual property, investment and government procurement. A rudimentary understanding of the Indian economic reality would clearly confirm that these will affect all three sectors � agriculture, industry and service.A The health sector which is so crucial for India and which together with education -constitutes the backbone of our human resource development measures- will be a major casualty if a higher level of intellectual property protection is provided.

An agreement on the policy parameters for government procurement will similarly affect principles like protection for some of the sectors which deserve such handholding by the state. The importance of this can be overlooked only at our own peril because these sectors cover cooperatives and the small scale sectors which are essentially labour intensive.

While Commerce and Industries minister Anand Sharma leading Indian delegation in Brussels for the negotiations gave an impression that India was looking for good packages on services including its interests in IT and movement of Indian professionals, it was also clear that they may not be able to conclude the negotiations within April as was being insisted by the EU . Sharma claimed � "The April 15 meeting was less aimed at trade talks but more directed at conveying a political message about the importance of concluding this agreement at the earliest".

But what was significant from the standpoint of the Indian people and their interests was -Anand Sharma divulged very little on what was in store in it for them. Sharma was most eloquent in his silence over what the agreement could mean for Indian agriculture. This was of particular importance because it involved the livelihood of millions of Indian peasants and it is well known that Europe has a huge farm subsidy in place.

Given such a context, it was obvious that livelihoods of Indian farmers which remains threatened with the neo-liberal policies followed domestically needs to be insulated from impact further subsidised imports. Otherwise, the sequence of farmers' suicides will intensify.

Therefore, much is at stake. And the level of non-transparency is unacceptable. The standing Committee of parliament is insistent that there must be a comprehensive study to enlighten and sensitise the parliament on the subject. This is an absolute must. It is on the basis of the report of the standing committee that parliament must have the opportunity to have a debate on the various dimensions of the proposed BTIA.

And the process of dissemination of information must not be limited to the parliament's precincts. Public consultations with stakeholders and sharing of draft texts on the government website are imperative. A Decisions must be shared and informed. In fact, most of the developed countries of the world use the instruments of parliamentary democracy to bargain and ensure the strongest possible negotiating position. And on a long term a revisit of our constitution on empowering the parliament for ratifying international agreements have become an urgent necessity.

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