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Occasional tweets but no consultation process with stakeholders: Civil society demands open access to free trade negotiations entered by India

Members of leading organisations and civil society have expressed concern over the opaque manner in which India has entered into free trade agreements with different countries without consulting and engaging the concerned stakeholders. An open letter has been sent to the Union government, raising grievances while stating that the non-consultative and exclusionary process signals a disregard towards the issues related to human rights, social justice and environmental impacts, which the stakeholders could have put on the table.

ON June 20, more than 130 organisations and leaders of civil society wrote an open letter expressing their concern over the lack of transparency and the non-consultative process adopted by the Union government in the negotiations with the European Union (EU) and several countries such as the United Kingdom, the United States, Canada and Israel for entering into free trade, comprehensive economic partnerships or investment related agreements.

The open letter claims that the current regime continues to pursue “opaque and limited consultation processes,” that have become a characteristic feature in the similar free trade agreements (FTA) that have been entered so far, despite the promise of “greater openness” and “cooperative federalism” made by the government. 

The letter, signed by prominent signatories like member of Parliament Jawhar Sircar; former Chief Information Commissioner Shailesh Gandhi; Narmada Bachao Andolan’s founder Medha Patkar; activist Teesta Setalvad; Feminist activist and author Kavita Krishnan; feminist economist Devaki Jain; to name a few, also expresses “grave concern” over the fact that state governments have also not been consulted in these negotiations.

The letter points out that FTA is a subject under both the State List and the Concurrent List of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution.

Occasional tweets in the name of consultation 

India and the EU member states resumed negotiations on the proposed agreements on trade and investments in June 2022, after a gap of over eight years. Currently, the fifth round of negotiations is going on between India and the European Commission (EC) in New Delhi. 

The EU is India’s third largest trading partner, accounting for €88 billion worth of trade in goods in 2021 or 10.8 percent of India’s total trade. India is the EU’s 10th largest trading partner, accounting for 2.1 percent of the EU’s total trade in goods.

While the EC is currently engaged in negotiations and dialogue with civil society stakeholders of the EU member states on the social impact assessment of the proposed FTA with India, the civil society in India was informed about the concerned negotiations only through a tweet by a joint secretary-level officer. 

On March 18, Nidhi Mani Tripathi, joint secretary in the Department of Commerce and Industry, tweeted: “Round 4 of India EU FTA negotiations held at Brussels. Thanks Christophe for hosting our team and for productive conversations.” 

The tweet was followed by a brief press note from the department in April. According to the press note, the ministers and high-level representatives from India and the European Free Trade Association states (Iceland, Liechtenstein, Norway and Switzerland) had a meeting in New Delhi to discuss the prospects of resuming negotiations towards a trade and economic partnership agreement. 

The open letter states that such statements, divulging information about ongoing or proposed negotiations, are “rare”. These statements made by the department of commerce or the ministry of external affairs are only made in order to garner attention of the foreign media.

The Union government has also not opened up the consultation process to farmers’ associations, labour unions, environmental and human rights groups, consumer associations, and many others who are legitimate and critically important stakeholders.

The millions of farmers, workers, artisans, fisherfolks, small businesses owners, gig workers, home-based workers and others who will be affected by these FTAs are completely invisible in these communications,” the open letter laments. 

Right to information application on FTA negotiations rejected 

The open letter asserts that apart from the failure of the Union government to proactively engage with the civil society in the consultation process of the FTA negotiations, civil society is also not being provided related information even through right to information (RTI) applications. 

In this context, the letter notes: “The Union government is also rejecting formal requests for even basic details about such matters.” 

The letter makes a mention of an application submitted under the Right to Information Act, 2005, seeking information about the agenda, the minutes of the ministerial meetings with EU delegations and the dates of every round of negotiations conducted in relation to the India–EU FTA since January 1, 2022.

In the application, a query was also raised about the policy adopted by India in protecting its sovereignty, integrity and strategic and economic interest in relation to the proposed India–EU FTA.

The information request was rejected by the Department of Commerce and Industry on the grounds of national security and trade secrets; the disclosure was exempted under Sections 8 (a) & (d) (exemption from disclosure of information) of the RTI Act. 

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,” the letter notes.

In reply to another RTI application related to the consultation process, the Department of Commerce and Industry stated that the consultation has been made only with industry associations and relevant ministries and departments. 

The letter states that this kind of a process does not inspire much confidence.

India continues to maintain opacity in FTAs concerning public interest 

Further, the open letter states that the substantive reports of the four rounds of negotiations completed so far, including the textual proposal submitted to the Union government are all freely available on the website of the EC. 

In fact, the information of what the EU is proposing for the 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 in the FTA, can be accessed on the EC’s website. 

Also read: India-UK FTA talks: Case for liberalisation of Indian legal sector

The letter reads: “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.

However, the letter remarks that there is no official intimation about India’s response to the EU’s proposals or its own textual proposals.

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,” the letter states.

Even the Parliament is not being consulted 

One of the pertinent concerns put forth in the letter is that the Union government has not entered into the consultation process with even the Parliament. Even though in the letter it is averred that according to the constitutional scheme of separation of powers, “monopoly” is provided to the Union government over matters relating to bilateral and multilateral treaties, which also includes FTAs, however, the letter also expresses concern that the “FTAs could result in the amendment or even scrapping of several Central legislations that are firmly in the domain of the Parliament”.

The letter suggests: “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.”

For asserting transparency open access is required 

Given the stark imbalance in the practice of transparency and inclusive consultation process adopted by negotiating partners, particularly the EU; in the letter it is demanded that the Union government must give wide publicity and provide open access to the proposal which has been submitted to the EU member states.

Also read: Gender chapter in the India-UK FTA is a positive step

The letter also demands that similar publicity and access should be given to the textual proposals received and responses submitted to other trading partners with whom FTA talks are ongoing. 

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 should be established, according to the letter.

Lastly, the letter demands 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 may include views and aspirations of all stakeholders. 

Ignorance of the above mentioned concerns would undermine or short-circuit the mandatory processes of environmental and social impact assessment, the letter concludes. 

With inputs from Kartik Goel, who is an intern with The Leaflet.