India unlikely to insist on food security clause at WTO’s Buenos Aires meet


India is not going to make securing a permanent solution on public stockholding for food security a prestige issue at the 11th World Trade Organization (WTO) ministerial conference (MC11) at Buenos Aires next month, trade minister Suresh Prabhu indicated.

In an interview, Prabhu even termed India’s insistence on a permanent solution to the matter “a mistake” since India already has an indefinite interim solution in place.

“There is a solution already available for public stockholding. This is something (where) we are making a mistake. We don’t have to worry about anything. They have already agreed that this will go (on) indefinitely,” the trade minister said.

“But if something better comes up, we will be more than happy to have it. This is something on the agenda. But what we have already got is a very good solution,” Prabhu added.

India seems to have lowered its expectations from MC11, given growing opposition from developed countries in the form of attempts to link its domestic support through minimum support prices for certain agricultural commodities to a permanent solution on public stockholding.

So far—even under Prabhu’s predecessor, Nirmala Sitharaman—India has been insistent that WTO deliver on its promise made during the Bali ministerial conference in 2013 that a permanent solution will be concluded in four years’ time. That is, by MC11.

Under the WTO rules, developing countries such as India need to limit their public procurement of foodgrains such as wheat and rice to within 10% of the value of the crop.

After India enacted the National Food Security Act, 2013, which aimed to provide subsidized foodgrains to approximately two-thirds of its 1.3 billion population, the demand for public procurement increased significantly.

At the Bali ministerial conference in December 2013, India secured a so-called “peace clause”. Under it, if India breaches the 10% limit, other member countries will not take legal action under the WTO dispute settlement mechanism. However, there was confusion over whether the temporary reprieve would continue after four years.

The Narendra Modi government after coming to power in 2014 forced developed countries to clarify that the peace clause will continue indefinitely if a permanent solution on the matter cannot be found by MC11.

However, public procurement for any new food programme of the government for food security purposes will not benefit from the indefinite peace clause as the concession is limited to the programmes running in 2013, at the time of the Bali conference.

According to Prabhu, that interpretation is not correct. “There is no bar,” the minister insisted.

The concession comes with onerous notification obligations, which is why India sought a permanent solution, one that will be an improvement on the indefinite peace clause.

Dipa Sinha, convener of the Right To Food (RTF) campaign, said the terms and conditions attached to the peace clause make the instrument ineffective for India. “The RTF campaign asks the government to ensure that new food crops can be covered under the permanent solution,” she said.