Free Trade Agreements EFTA-India: Civil Society Concerned about Lack of Democracy

Berne, 07.10.2008 - On the 7th of octobre an Indian civil society delegation expressed concerns over negotiations that officially started this week between the EFTA-states and India for a bilateral free trade pact. Their meeting with representatives of the Swiss Federal Government had been organized by the Berne Declaration and Alliance Sud. The Indian delegation criticized the negotiations’ perceived lack of transparency and their failure to take into account the interests of the poor. The Swiss side showed little understanding for the criticism.

Swiss NGOs Berne Declaration and Alliance Sud organized a meeting in order to give Indian civil society a hearing with the Swiss negotiating team. Switzerland plays a very active role in these bilateral negotiations. Many Indian NGOs are worried that the agreement with the EFTA will have negative effects on development in India. The lively discussion between three personalities from various Indian NGOs and several representatives of federal agencies involved in the negotiations centered on the economic and social impact of the agreement on the Indian population. These effects have received scant consideration from official negotiators so far.

Smitu Kothari, Indian Activist and founder of the NGO „Intercultural Ressources“, criticized the lack of democracy in the negotiating process in India. He also denounced the lack of transparency and the paucity of input from parliament and state governments. „It is extremely important for agreements like this to acknowledge fundamental values such as social justice, human rights, and sustainable development and to take into account the needs of the vast majority of the population. This requires the active participation of all those affected by the outcome of these negotiations.“

David Kadam, director of Swissaid in India, expressed concern about the negative effects on agriculture, which provides a livelihood for some 70% of the population. He is afraid that continued liberalization of the Indian economy will only speed up the increase of rural poverty and inequality.
Gopa Kumar of Third World Network is particularly worried about Swiss demands for a stronger protection of intellectual property. This might reduce the availability of essential medicines in India and many other developing countries because India is an important exporter of generic drugs. If Swiss protection demands prevail, farmers will find it more difficult too procure seed.

The critical positions of the Indian delegation collided with the purely market driven position of the official Switzerland intent on securing optimal market access for private companies. Swiss negotiators had confidence in the Indian democratic system and it was not their business to comment on India’s internal decision-making processes, said Maurizio Cerratti, deputy head of free trade agreements/EFTA at the State Secretariat for Economic Affairs.

Peter Beyer of the Federal Institute of Intellectual Property added: „In matters of intellectual property, Switzerland is neither willing nor capable of imposing conditions on a country like India.“

This attitude is at odds with the demands of Swiss and Indian NGOs for free trade agreements that promote sustainable social and economic development as the only way to make sure that trade actually helps reduce poverty in the medium term.