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Free trade jitters in region

The Telegraph, Calcutta

Free trade jitters in region

20 July 2011

By Our Correspondent

Shillong, July 19: An indigenous group from the Northeast today added steam to the dissent against the European Union-India Free Trade Agreement demanding transparency in the talks which have been held under “secrecy” for the last four years.

The EU and India began negotiations in 2007 on a free trade agreement, which could generate a two-way trade annually amounting to $134 billion.

Members of the North East Dialogue Forum, in an interaction with reporters here, said, the region stands to lose if the free trade agreement, which would be a legally binding document, is allowed to materialise.

The forum, with its headquarters in Imphal, has nearly 200 NGOs under its ambit in all the eight states of the region.

“We fear that if the free trade agreement materialises, our mountains will disappear as there would be large-scale mining of minerals; our rivers would diminish as huge dams would be built for power generation; our paddy fields would be converted into lands for sowing cash crops,” forum convener U. Nobokishore claimed.

He said the region is endowed with several minerals, which could attract huge foreign direct investment once the agreement comes into existence.

On agriculture, he said the paddy fields would cease to exist, as cash crops would be sowed to yield greater benefits. “What will happen to the indigenous people once the land becomes exhausted?” Nobokishore asked.

P.B.M. Basaiawmoit, a church leader and member of the forum, said the free trade agreement would facilitate the selling of “Californian oranges” at the cost of locally-grown oranges from Sohra (Cherrapunjee) and Ri War areas of Meghalaya.

“Californian oranges would be sold at a cheaper rate compared to the oranges from Sohra and Ri War areas. Then what will happen to our farmers?” he asked.

Throwing light on the free trade agreement, Kavaljit Singh from the Public Interest Research Centre, New Delhi, said the agreement, which would be a legally binding document, would adversely affect India as it involves a whole range of public issues.

“Although 13 rounds of talks have been held between India and the EU on the agreement, the government has never disclosed the framework of the negotiations,” Singh said.

He also pointed out that the agreement would pave the way for EU enterprises to foray into India’s strategic domains, which include fisheries, textiles, processed food, automobiles and wine.

Singh said ever since UPA I came into power, there has been a strategic shift in India’s economic policies whereby multilateral trade agreements are no longer the order of the day. “Since 2005, the government’s focus has been on bilateral trade. Earlier, the government would sign trade agreements even with poorer countries. But now, the spotlight is on bigger powers.”

“If the free trade agreement with the EU comes through, it would be the biggest ever in the world. But the repercussions on India would be real,” Singh claimed.

Singh said the agreement would also allow European investors to sue the Indian government in a court located in a third country.

He demanded that if not the negotiations, which resumed in New Delhi yesterday and will conclude on Thursday, the public should at least be made aware of the framework of the talks.

“The government should weigh the pros and cons of the agreement before agreeing to it. Look at the costs and benefits of it. It (the government) should also convince the people why the agreement is favourable for India. We also demand that all international trade agreements be ratified by Parliament,” he added.

When pointed out that the agreement could also facilitate greater investments in the region, Singh said, “We have to see whether the investment is good.”