Hard Line at WTO Earns Indian Praise

By Rama Lakshmi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, August 1, 2008

NEW DELHI, July 31 -- After nine days of talking tough at the Geneva global trade meeting, which ended in collapse, chief Indian negotiator Kamal Nath returned to New Delhi on Thursday to a hero's welcome.

He was congratulated by colleagues at a cabinet meeting for "bravely fighting the nation's battle." During an interview, his cellphone beeped constantly with text messages reading "Well done," "You have made India proud" and "You held your own in Geneva."

The World Trade Organization talks collapsed Tuesday when developing nations, speaking through Nath, stood firm on safeguard measures that they said were vital to protect the livelihoods of millions of farmers against a likely spike in food imports from rich nations.

The talks focused on farm trade, a highly politicized subject the world over. American and European negotiators were offering to gradually scale back subsidies to their producers that can give a trade advantage. In return, they wanted new access for their farm goods in countries such as India.

In the end, the talks failed over the relatively narrow question of the safeguards Nath championed. But many analysts saw the collapse as a reflection of larger, fundamental differences remaining over future farm trade and further globalization.

As news reached India that Nath was aggressively blocking proposals by wealthy nations, he was cheered as the doughty defender of the rights of subsistence farmers.

"There was enormous pressure, but I was not going to negotiate the livelihood security of Indian farmers," Nath, 61, India's commerce and industries minister, said in an interview in New Delhi. "The Geneva meet is not meant to increase the prosperity of developed countries but reduce the poverty of developing countries."

He said he constantly joked with the American negotiators and had a "one-dollar deal for them," a dare to cut one dollar of farm subsidies.

The Nicorette-chewing politician was often seen abroad as speaking the language of protectionism. But in India, he is known as an aggressive free-market advocate. The entrance to his office in New Delhi has a signboard reading "India: Fastest growing free market democracy."

Nath has been campaigning to bring foreign investment into India's booming retail industry and educational institutions. Two years ago, he launched the biggest industrial expansion program in post-independence India by approving 250 projects aimed at creating Chinese-style special economic zones on Indian farmland. He pushed ahead despite an uproar in Parliament and countless street protests by farmers.

"There is no one in India more committed to opening the economy than Kamal Nath today," said Tarun Das, who heads the Confederation of Indian Industry and who accompanied the minister on earlier trade talks. "He has opened India's trade policy, cut custom duties, freed imports, simplified the rules. But on international agricultural trade, his boundaries were already set."

India began liberalizing its socialist-style economy in the early 1990s, but it still exhibits periodic bouts of suspicion about unbridled foreign investment.


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