India-US lock horns on market access, H-1B visas at trade forum

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New Delhi: At the first high-level trade engagement between India and the US after President Donald Trump took charge, the differences between the two countries on market access and intellectual property rights (IPRs) came to the fore at the minister-level dialogue under the auspices of the 11th trade policy forum platform in Washington on Thursday.

While the Indian delegation was led by trade minister Suresh Prabhu, the US delegation was led by US trade representative (USTR) Robert Lighthizer.

Lighthizer expressed concern about the trade deficit with India. India had a trade surplus of $20 billion in 2016-17 with exports of over $42 billion to the US during the same fiscal year.

A commerce ministry official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said Prabhu responded to US concerns by noting that US and Indian exports to each other’s territory have been growing at the same pace and any issue of trade deficit has to be viewed in the larger context of the growing economic and strategic partnership between both countries.

“In spite of huge difference in the size of the economy as well as per capita income, US happens to be the second largest exporter to India. He (Prabhu) emphasized that India-US relationship must be seen as a whole rather than in partial and segmented silos,” said the official.

The USTR also expressed concern over price controls by India in medical devices. India’s drug pricing watchdog had earlier this year substantially cut prices of cardiovascular stents and knee implants in public interest.

Prabhu responded by making a strong pitch for the need for India to bring about a reconciliation between the demand for optimum medical facilities and affordable healthcare for its citizens.

“Life-saving drugs and devices and their supply are of utmost concern for any developing country. India desires to address the concerns of providing affordable healthcare to its citizens and at the same time work towards striking a balance between affordable healthcare needs and introduction of high-end technology,” said the official, quoting Prabhu’s statement.

In response to US concerns relating to the implementation of IPRs in India, Prabhu pointed out that with the adoption of the National IPR Policy 2016, which lays down the road map for future development in the field of IPRs, India has taken a major step towards revitalizing the IPR regime.

“Re-engineering and simplification of IP filing and prosecution processes have also been undertaken—as an example, the number of trademark forms have been reduced from the earlier 74 to just eight. New commercial courts have been created to expedite disposal of pending commercial disputes, including IPRs,” said the official, quoting Prabhu.

India also emphasized the need for immediate progress in easing procedures for exports of mangoes and pomegranates, and market access for table grapes.

Prabhu took up the problems faced by IT services companies in obtaining H-1B and L-1 visas, higher visa fees and high rejection rates. He also raised the issue of signing a totalization or social security pact with the US which would allow Indian techies to bring back their social security contributions on their return to India.