© Atul Loke/Panos
Switzerland is negotiating a bilateral free trade agreement with India within the framework of EFTA. The negotiations started in 2008 have been slow and marked by interruptions, and have yet to be concluded after 17 rounds of negotiations.

From the outset, Public Eye and civil society organisations in India and EFTA countries have been stating that the intended free trade agreement pays insufficient heed to the issue of development.

Although India is an emerging country that has reported impressive economic growth in recent years, the country is home to the highest number of people living in poverty in the world. Some 60% of the labour force continues to work in agriculture; judged on per capita income, India is on a par with Bolivia or Vietnam. This difference in the stages of development of India and the EFTA states needs to be taken into account in the FTA negotiations.

There is little sign of this happening. The EFTA countries – under Switzerland’s leadership – are calling for India to open up its financial services market. Yet liberalising the banking sector jeopardises the provision of credit to rural areas and limits India’s ability to adapt its policies to respond appropriately to financial crises.

The demands made by EFTA for intellectual property rights to be further strengthened – by what are known as the TRIPS-plus provisions – also show little regard for development policy. They would hugely restrict access to affordable drugs by preventing or delaying the introduction of generic drugs. In the case of India in particular, this would have severe ramifications for destitute people around the world who suffer from HIV or other life-threatening illnesses. This is because India serves as the “Pharmacy of the Poor” (in German), and as the world’s largest producer of generic drugs, provides many developing countries with affordable medicines.

Criticism from different sides

Public Eye highlighted this problem early on in a position paper. Our criticism of the demand to expand intellectual property rights was supported by an unlikely candidate – Norway chose not to participate in the negotiations on the protection of intellectual property rights. According to the country’s State Secretary at the time, Rikke Lind, “Norway does not pursue any policy that could force developing countries to accept an agreement that limits their policy space beyond  multilateral commitments on patent protection.”

To build powerful resistance to the FTA with India, from the outset Public Eye contacted partner organisations at home and abroad, including in Norwegian civil society. Public Eye also travelled to India before the start of the official negotiations to work with local NGOs to develop strategies and to coordinate cooperation. Whilst the first round of negotiations was underway in Delhi, an Indian delegation of NGO representatives visited Switzerland at the invitation of Public Eye and Alliance Sud. In talks with the federal authorities and the media, they reiterated the criticism voiced by Public Eye (see the document “Opening remarks”) of the planned EFTA-India agreement and painted an impactful image of the feared consequences of the FTA.


Stubborn attitude – no end in sight

At the beginning of 2014, as chief negotiator on behalf of EFTA, Switzerland made huge efforts to conclude the FTA before the Indian elections in the spring of 2014. Yet it was not prepared to drop its demands for stronger intellectual property rights. Demands that had been met with fierce resistance in India. Following the change of government in India, negotiations only resumed in 2016, and were again interrupted in 2017. After that, there was radio silence for five years. Apparently, India had meanwhile lost interest in free trade agreements. It was not until 2022 that EFTA and India agreed to continue the negotiation process. It remains to be seen whether a successful conclusion will be reached this time, because according to Seco there are still major differences on a number of issues, above all intellectual property rights. Public Eye will continue to put pressure on Switzerland to finally abandon its demands in this regard.

Alongside the topic of bilateral trade relations, Public Eye’s work in relation to India includes the fields of patents, access to drugs and clinical trials.