Monthly Archives: July 2015

Trade Secrets – Why is the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) being negotiated under wraps?

Negotiating trade agreements in secret seems to be the order of the day: whether it is the Trans Pacific Investment Partnership (TPIP) or closer home the RCEP. While all trade agreements in today’s globalised world have a direct or indirect impact on all of us the RCEP should be of greater concern to us since India is a direct party in these negotiations. The RCEP is being negotiated between 16 governments i.e. 10 ASEAN countries and their trading partners Australia, China, India, Japan, the Republic of Korea and New Zealand. Its significance is akin to the large trade agreements such as the TPIP and Trans Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TATIP). What is disturbing is that even after eight rounds of negotiations very little information is available about this agreement in public domain. While the New Zealand and Australian Governments provide some level of detail about the scope of the agreement the GOI’s Ministry of Commerce website is silent on the scope. Sketchy information on the meetings is the only information available. Why the secrecy? Why the unwillingness for full disclosure?

As reported recently by G. Manicandan of the Forum against FTAs, the RCEP reportedly covers goods, services, investment, economic and technical cooperation, intellectual property, as well as competition and dispute settlement. Manicandan also asserts that the “RCEP proposes liberalization of trade beyond India’s obligation under WTO and existing FTAs with Japan, South Korea, ASEAN, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand etc. Further, it also proposes India to undertake legally binding obligations on investment and competition law and do away with public interest safeguards in intellectual property law such as Patents Act and Copyrights Act”.

Given the potential impact of such an agreement on the environment, livelihoods and lives of people in the negotiating countries it is only fair that we ask whether an environmental and social impact assessment was done for the RCEP. There is no evidence of such an assessment having been done for an agreement of this magnitude. Farmers unions and civil society in India have registered their protests against the RCEP but what is critical is that we demand a detailed impact assessment. We have a precedence for this in the impact assessment that was done for the EU-India FTA. Many civil society organisations in India participated in this assessment which warned of serious violations of the right to food, dairy and poultry farmers, street vendors and others. The impact of the RCEP could be much larger given that “it proposes liberalisation of trade beyond India’s obligations under the WTO”. What will the impact be on our ecosystems, on the health of our soils, forests, air and water? How will the RCEP affect the agrarian crisis and rampant malnutrition? There is an urgent need to demand for an impact assessment. The myriad ‘distractions’ in the form of Parliament disruption, obsession of the media and political parties with the IPL scam have successfully allowed these negotiations to go ahead without scrutiny. One wonders if this is the plan!

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The Travails of Building a Toilet – Is this the road to a Swach Bharat?

As the Swach Bharat juggernaut rolls on, homes in villages across Andhra Pradesh (as I am sure in other States) are trying to build a toilet. Here is a glimpse of the process that is to be followed in Andhra Pradesh (or at least in Chittoor District of Andhra Pradesh). Families interested in building toilets must inform the Panchayat Secretary. Once their application is approved the Panchayat Secretary gives the family the go ahead. The toilets have to be built according to Rural Water Supply and Sanitation Department’s specifications which has to be communicated to the family. The conditions are – site must be located away from the house, it must be a brick and cement construction with an Indian Style latrine. A soak pit must also be constructed. The family contacts neighbours / masons / construction labour who have some experience building toilets and gets an estimate. This ranges anywhere from Rs. 25,000 to 35,000 (July 2015 figures) depending upon the size of the toilet and local costs and availability of cement, brick, sand, sanitary fitting, labour etc. Government will release funds of Rs. 12,000 – 15,000 (numbers are not clearly communicated to the family but the Panchayat Secretary) after completion of the toilet and when a photograph is provided as proof. How does the family raise the money to build this toilet? Women borrow from Self-Help groups, private money-lenders at high interest, friends and family etc. In almost all cases the costs incurred are at least Rs. 10,000 – 15,000 higher than the amount allocated by the Government. The actual cost is even higher when you factor in the cost of loan repayment. Take the case of a all women household – an old widow who receives an old-age monthly pension of Rs. 1000. She is 70 years old and therefore cannot be a member of the SHG and hence cannot avail a loan. Her widowed daughter is 40 years old with a daily wages job earning about Rs. 2000-3000 a month. They desperately need a toilet since the mother is ageing and cannot make that early morning trip to the fields to receive herself. Where are they going to get the money? Even if the daughter takes a loan from the SHG how is she going to repay it and feed herself and her mother. Where are the achhe din and swachh bharat for these families? If the Government is serious about improving sanitation it must (a) provide simpler toilet design options that are not so material intensive (let us learn from sanitation programmes in African countries, Indonesia, Malaysia, Sri Lanka) and therefore cheaper to construct while being functional (b) create a cadre of on-the ground masons and construction workers who people can hire to build these units rather than be at the mercy of various contractors and (c) create a Fund for women-headed or elderly-headed households and other marginalised sections of society, which will provide interest-free loans with flexible repayment options. For once let’s really put our best foot forward and not resort to tokenism and political gimmickry!

A version of this blog is available on the Down to Earth blogs site.