New Delhi: As Prime Minister Narendra Modi arrived in Singapore on Wednesday to attend what was hoped to be one of the last rounds of negotiations in the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), the RSS’s Swadeshi Jagran Manch released a letter it sent to the prime minister today. In it, the RSS affiliate has asked that India quit participating in the RCEP.
Ashwani Mahajan, the convener of the body, wrote in the letter that RCEP is a “major threat and not a major opportunity” for India. “RCEP is not in the interest of the people of India. There is no sector, no constituency, or no region in India that will benefit from RCEP,” the letter reads.
Civil society groups and HIV patient groups in India have also written to Suresh Prabhu, the minister of commerce and industry, asking him to ensure that the RCEP agreement does not interfere with India’s patent regime and alter India’s ability to manufacture generic medicines.
In a letter to Prabhu, they said India should reject certain proposals which could change India’s policy on intellectual property rights for pharmaceuticals. “Failure to do so would severely restrict or block generic competition, the only proven mechanism for reducing the prices of medicines, which, in turn, would severely undermine access to affordable generic medicines in India,” a letter written by civil society organisations reads.
The RCEP is a 16-member free trade agreement (FTA) consisting of the ten ASEAN member states – Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. In addition to this, there are six countries with which these countries already have free trade agreements – Australia, China, India, Japan, South Korea and New Zealand. Formal negotiations began in 2012.
A range of economic issues are discussed at RCEP including livestock, dairy, fisheries, e-commerce and patents. If these 16 countries get together on all these issues via RCEP, it would create the world’s largest free trade bloc, impacting on nearly 45% if the world’s population.
Is India’s independence being compromised?
The Swadeshi Jagran Manch says in its letter that, “India is being asked to improve its offer to RCEP partners including the ASEAN, China, New Zealand, Australia, Japan and South Korea.”
They say that India’s trade deficit with China will increase manifold and will threaten India’s growth potential and that the survival of Indian small and medium sized enterprises will be in question.
Mahajan says that Australia’s competitiveness in export of wheat, dairy and meat products, and New Zealand’s competitiveness in dairy export, could make Indian agriculture and dairy sectors very vulnerable.
How public health may be impacted?
Mahajan also makes a note about how access to affordable medicines may be hampered by what India agrees to at RCEP: “The country can not afford to compromise the access to medicines by agreeing to any TRIPS plus provision in IPR chapter either and must build alliances with specific ASEAN countries like Indonesia and the Philippines, and get them to support its position.”
The letter by civil society organisations list the specific provisions in the RCEP which seek to change India’s approach to intellectual property. It cites the provisions on patent term extension (which would extend a pharmaceutical patent beyond the current limit which is 20 years), data exclusivity (where patent holders are given the right to not disclose trial data information) and investor dispute settlements (which would allow pharmaceutical corporations to sue governments like India for applying existing flexibilities to protect the right to health).
Their letter notes that India has so far been on the side of keeping pharmaceuticals cheap: “India in the past has resisted to proposals that could impose greater restrictions on generic medicines.”
The Wire reported on this in October 2017 when government officials told The Wire that India would not at all be crossing any “red lines” and would instead be committed to keeping pharmaceuticals affordable.
In September 2018, The Wire also reported on India taking the lead in protecting rights of governments to keep prices of pharmaceuticals down. This was at another negotiation – the United Nations high-level meeting on tuberculosis and another one on non-communicable diseases.
If India agrees to conservative positions at RCEP which impinge on India’s ability to provide affordable healthcare, it would create a policy inconsistency in Indian bureaucracy across the board – which would become untenable in its implementation.
RCEP talks to continue into next year
This round of RCEP talks in Singapore is important because it was hoped that a consensus would have been reached by now.
The presence of the prime minister at the ‘Leaders Summit’ today also increased its public profile, explaining the pushback from the Swadeshi Jagran Manch and civil society.
Those who have been watching RCEP closely like Swadeshi Jagran Manch and the various civil society organisations, had been off the apprehension that it was reaching its final round of talks.
However, news reports said that the talks had actually failed to reach consensus on issues of e-commerce and investment. As such, this means the talks will have to keep going on to yet another round.