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Free Trade Agreements: A Threat To People's Freedoms
Special Contribution
By Shobha Shukla

(CNS): The year 2011 has seen the most significant attempts to revive the World Trade Organization in recent times, with the stated objective of member countries to conclude the Doha round before the end of the year. At this juncture, developing countries like India need to take stock of the situation so that key concerns are taken into account.

It is assumed that free trade and the removal of regulations on investment will result in economic growth, reducing poverty and generating employment opportunities. However, past evidence shows that these kinds of agreements allow transnational corporations more freedom to exploit workers rather than help them. By removing all restrictions on businesses, the lives of the common people are affected severely.

The European Commission is currently negotiating a free trade agreement with India and several rounds of negotiations have already been held.

In a statement issued after the conclusion of her recent visit to India in the second week of April, 2011, Ska Keller, a Green member of the European Parliament, warned that the proposed free trade agreement between India and the European Union will have serious consequences for the Indian people.

According to her, the “FTA is a threat to poverty eradication and development of the Indian people, as regulations on intellectual property rights might endanger the production of generics and thereby block the access to medical treatment for millions of poor people in India and other countries.”

“I therefore support the campaign Hands off our medicine of Médecins Sans Frontières or MSF (doctors without borders) Europe! I am also concerned that Indian farmers could stand affected negatively. Moreover, there are severe concerns that the deal with the EU could force small shops to close or wholesome industries to close down due to competition from Europe,’’ she added.

She also feels that any so-called benefits of the FTA cannot be foreseen yet. “Only one of the Indian partners stated at all which advantages India hopes to achieve from the FTA: more liberal visa regulation and technology transfer. But it is doubtful whether these advantages will be achieved as firstly it is the member states, and not the European Commission, to decide about visa regulations. Secondly, technology transfer can only happen if European companies produce and apply their technologies in India and even if they did, small enterprises would not benefit. “

Similar concerns were voiced by U.K.-based Madi Sharma, a member of the European Economic and Social Committee. She called for the suspension of the negotiations until studies had been carried out to ‘assess the likely economic and social risks of the FTA on Indian society.’ “Until now, the talks have been guided by a study that fails to take the FTA’s impact on the informal sector into account – even though over 90 percent of the Indian economy is informal, up of people like street vendors and domestic workers,’’ she said in a statement.

According to a joint statement of seed solidarity between European and Indian people issued during the International Days of Action in Brussels , recently (on 18th April): Free trade would make seed slaves and would have devastating consequences on small farmers and seed growers. In its FTA talks the EU demands a range of commitments like market access for EU agricultural products, and IPR protection in the form of patents / data exclusivity for its agri- chemicals industry. The investor protections sought by EU through the proposed FTA, will mean priority access over land and water being given to EU industries/businesses rather than local farmers.

The statement endorsed that traditionally farmers all over the world have saved their seeds to sow, re sow, share, exchange and sometimes sell, but never to own exclusively. But the ‘free trade’ agenda gives dominant control and market freedom to corporations and agribusinesses and severely limits time-honoured farmers' freedoms. It reduces farmers – the original producers of seed — to consumers.

EU seed legislation already gives strong preference to industrial varieties to the detriment of traditional heirloom varieties and the vast plant diversity developed over centuries. It restricts the right of farmers and gardeners to produce, multiply and exchange their own seeds.

Intellectual property in FTAs can undermine the right to health in many ways. For example, tobacco companies are using FTAs with intellectual property in investment chapters to sue governments directly for their efforts to bring in measures to protect public health.

"Data exclusivity has proven to be damaging to public health in free trade agreements in other countries," said Anand Grover, the UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health. "It would be a colossal mistake to introduce data exclusivity in India, when millions of people across the globe depend on the country as the pharmacy of the developing world."

"As we speak, Philip Morris is using the Switzerland-Uruguay trade agreement to sue Uruguay for its decision to introduce larger and more graphic health warnings on cigarette packs," said YK Sapru, of the Cancer Patients Aid Association, which has long advocated for tobacco control measures in India.

The international medical humanitarian organisation MSF has already voiced its concerns about the severe limitations FTA would impose upon Indian generic manufacturers to produce affordable medicines. MSF relies on affordable medicines produced in India to treat more than 160,000 people living with HIV/AIDS across the developing world. India is also the source of 80% of the AIDS medicines purchased by donors like the Global Fund.

Generic medicines from India have played a critical role in scaling up AIDS treatment across the developing world because until 2005, the country did not grant patents on medicines. This allowed manufacturers to produce more affordable drugs, pushing their price down by more than 99% over the past decade. But World Trade Organization rules obligated India to start granting medicines patents in 2005. This is having a negative impact on access to affordable versions of the newer generation of HIV/AIDS drugs, some of which have already been patented in India.

Now the policies the EU are pushing would restrict the production of affordable medicines even further. In particular, the EU is seeking to impose ‘data exclusivity’ which would act like a patent and block the marketing of generic medicines for up to ten years. Alarmingly, data exclusivity would apply even to products that didn’t deserve a patent in the first place under India’s law.

The European Union is demanding patents through free trade agreements, which are longer than that demanded by the World Trade Organization. Its actions are a direct threat to access to safe, effective and affordable medicines across the developing world. India should resist pressure from the European Union to accept, as part of a free trade agreement, harmful provisions that will have a major negative impact on access to affordable medicines, and on agricultural practices. (CNS)

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Other Articles by Shobha Shukla
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Ms. Shobha Shukla has been teaching Physics at India's noted Loreto Convent, and has written for The Hindustan Times and Women's Era in the past. She serves as Editor of Citizen News Service (CNS). She can be contacted at






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