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India Not to Compromise Farmers' Interest at WTO: Sitharaman

India today said it will not compromise the interest of poor farmers and consumers at the WTO and sought complete resolution of the foodgrain stockpile issue, which is essential for unhindered implementation of the country's food security programme.

"Food security is a humanitarian concern, especially in these times of uncertainty and volatility, and the issue of food security is critical to a vast swathe of humanity and cannot be sacrificed to mercantilist considerations," Commerce and Industry Minister Nirmala Sitharaman told the Lok Sabha.

Justifying India's tough stand, which had led to collapse of the WTO Geneva talks recently, she said without a permanent solution, public stockholding programmes in India and other developing countries will be hampered by the present ceiling on domestic support which is pegged at 10 per cent of the value of production and is wrongly considered as trade-distorting subsidy to farmers under existing WTO rules.

"India stood firm on its demands despite immense pressure. India is committed to protecting the interests of our farmers against all odds. Our farmers work in extremely adverse conditions, most of them at the mercy of the vagaries of the monsoon, aggravated today by climate change," she said.

India had decided not to ratify WTO's Trade Facilitation Agreement (TFA), which is dear to the developed world, without any concrete movement in finding a permanent solution to its public food stock-holding issue for food security purposes.

Congress leader and former food minister K V Thomas said UPA government had also adopted the "same stance".

Commenting on this Lok Sabha speaker Sumitra Mahajan said: "It was a good thing."

India has asked the World Trade Orgnization (WTO) to amend the norms for calculating agri subsidies in order to procure foodgrains from farmers at minimum support price and sell that to poor at cheaper rates without attracting any penalty in the WTO.

The current WTO norms limit the value of food subsidies at 10 per cent of the total value of foodgrain production. However, the support is calculated at the prices that are over two decades old.

India is asking for a change in the base year (1986-88) for calculating the food subsidies. It wants the change to current base year on account of various factors such as inflation and currency movements.

There are apprehensions that once India completely implements its food security programme, it could breach the 10 per cent cap. Breach of the cap may lead to imposition of hefty penalties if a member country drags India to the WTO.

Sitharaman said developing countries are finding themselves hamstrung by the existing rules in running their food stockholding and domestic food aid programmes.

It is important for developing countries to be able to guarantee some minimum returns to their poor farmers so that they are able to produce enough for themselves and for domestic food security, she added.

"A permanent solution on food security is a must for us and we cannot wait endlessly in a state of uncertainty while the WTO engages in an academic debate on the subject of food security which is what some developed countries seem to be suggesting before they are ready to engage on this important issue," the minister said.

Developing countries like India must have the freedom to use food reserves to feed their poor without the threat of violating any international obligations.

"This is our sovereign right. It is our duty to protect our citizens' fundamental rights to life and livelihood," Sitharaman said, adding that in a country of the size of India with 60 per cent of the population dependent on a relatively unremunerative agriculture sector, it cannot give up administered prices.

"This is the only way we can procure food for the Public Distribution System, the central pillar on which our efforts to ensure food security rest. Public stockholding is a widely used means to ensure food security in many developing countries where agriculture is largely rainfed," She said.

"We have to look after both consumer and producer interests. We have to enable our people to live a life of dignity by ensuring access to an adequate quantity of quality food at affordable prices," the minister added.

She said the timely correction of any imbalances or anomalies in the working of the system or its rules is critical to ensure that the "WTO works impartially and fairly in the interest of all its Members and not just a select few".

She informed that developed world too had market price support programmes and they were able to move away from such support because of their deep pockets but it is not possible for developing countries.

However, she expressed confident that India will be able to persuade the WTO membership to appreciate the sensitivities of India and other developing countries and see their way to taking this issue forward in a positive spirit.

"This would be a major contribution by this institution towards 'meeting the global challenge of food insecurity and would convey -a strong message that the WTO is genuinely committed to the cause of development," she said.

Emerging story. Watch this space for updates as more details come in
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