Harsha Vardhana Singh is the only Indian among the top brass of the World Trade Organisation (WTO). Before his current assignment, this Rhodes Scholar with a PhD in Economics from the University of Oxford held a series of critical positions: secretary-cum-principal advisor with the Telecom Regulatory Authority of India (TRAI), consultant with the Bureau of Industrial Costs and Prices, the government of India, and then with ILO and UNCTAD in Geneva. He then joined the secretariat of general agreement on tarif and trade (GATT), which was to later transform into WTO, and worked for 12 years in various capacities.
As deputy director-general, he now looks after the three divisions of Agriculture and Commodities, Trade and Environment, and Trade in Services. During his current visit to India, Singh spoke with Trithesh Nandan about the deadlocked Doha Round of Trade Negotiations and the case of India. Edited excerpts from the interview:
What exactly is the problem with the Doha Round? Is it really dead?
There is a fundamental transitional and conceptualisation situation that has resulted in the current stalemate in the Doha Round of Trade Negotiations. There is a fundamental gap in the perception and understanding of the needs of the developing and developed nations. This lack of an appropriate balance, not just in WTO but in all other multilateral fora, is affecting the successful conclusion of multilateral agreements adversely.
Last year well-known economist Jagdish Bhagwati compared the Doha Round with “the classic Monty Python sketch in which a customer holds up a dead parrot in a cage while the shopkeeper insists that the parrot is only ‘resting’.”
What Bhagwati refers to is the inability of member countries to conclude the deal comprehensively within a certain time frame. Yes, the member countries have not been able to complete it. However, the WTO is much larger than the negotiations. The organisation is going on reasonably well with lots of work being done. That’s not the problem. The part to improve [is] the negotiations where we are still stuck and Bhagwati mentions it. What he says is that the negotiations carry value for everybody. But countries are not able to see that and they keep emphasising a certain aspect, which overlooks this value.
When can we expect the conclusion of the negotiations?
Until the global economy resurrects, it is unlikely that any deal would come on its way. However, the financial downturn is not the sole problem; there are other issues like agriculture subsidies. The Doha trade negotiations have to be resolved bit by bit. That’s the way they are progressing right now. Let us try and achieve whatever we can, whenever we can. You are losing every day.
Any particular year by when you expect the conclusion?
Can’t say a particular date or year but definitely we have closed the gap on all the issues. The members have progressed on much of the mandate. However, since 2009 we are seeing ministerial meetings – now held every two years – on negotiations that were decided by the member countries. There are ministerial meetings in 2013 and 2015. Let’s see what happens by then.
Is the current economic crisis coming in the way of the trade talks?
People have realised that it is not possible to have a single undertaken agreement on the Doha Round. It is because of economic conditions and differences of opinion among certain members [that] the emerging economies are not agreeing to what others are bringing to the table.
We will soon see Russia joining as 156th member of the WTO. The member countries are carrying on negotiations in terms of whatever one can get agreement over within the larger mandate. The discussions are going on in several committees etc. The countries are also negotiating on sealing smaller bilateral, regional agreements and free trade agreements. There are multiple negotiations going on but what is required really is to address the fundamental problems which cover global international trade negotiations. Once the world economy picks up, that will bring a more conducive political environment to conclude negotiations.
India too has registered a lower growth rate. How can it tide over the economic downturn?
If you are growing… together with growth one needs to manage public policy... So an economic policy is a far larger concept than growth, but growth is a very fundamental enabler of economic development. It becomes that much difficult. There are strains on public policymakers because you have a lot many issues to address. And what we need to do is to try and get out of it with better growth and better domestic policies; creating a more investment-oriented environment, some safety nets which can provide breathing space etc.
If I can change the topic and talk of a specific issue, in recent months, India is debating the promotion of generic drugs to bring down its prices. What is WTO’s stand on this matter?
The member countries had discussed the issue. The WTO has actually agreed but in order to amend the WTO agreement, you need to have two-thirds ratification by the member countries to allow export of generic drugs in certain circumstances to address health-related issues in developing countries and provide cheaper drugs. We are on the way to reach an agreement.
When is it expected?
That won’t take much time. There are lots of efforts going on in this regard. It has been discussed in other international forums as well, including TRIPS (trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights). However, some countries would need the approval from their parliaments before they can form any view at WTO.
Can you elaborate on the ‘Made in the World’ concept WTO is proposing?
When you see a particular product, it is not made in any single country. There are inputs from various countries that go into finalising a product. So when you say where the product is made in, you can’t any longer say it is made here and there. So it is ‘Made in the World’.
WTO director general Pascal Lamy recently constituted a high-level stakeholder panel to deliberate on ‘defining the future of trade’. How will the panel define the future when the trade talks are deadlocked?
The experts are holding discussions to get a perspective on a different level … to see where the system is moving, where the emphasis is put, how you could seek a certain kind of solution when everybody is on board, or what are the various concerns that need to be addressed. It is to get better insight into the dynamic system at a time when we need to find solutions in a framework which considers several different perspectives and try to see what there is inside or taking this process forward. So that we are in a better position for all countries to feel comfortable so that appropriate steps are taken.