India refuses to budge on farm issues at Bali WTO meet

The latest round of World Trade Organisation talks in the idyllic island state of Bali remained inconclusive today, with the issue of farm subsidies continuing to block a consensus.

India said this afternoon that it has no problems with a deal on eight of the 10 subjects on the table and would not be averse to further negotiations on the contentious food security and trade facilitation issues at the next round in Geneva if an agreement is not reached at Nusa Dua in Bali.

While there is not much concern over five issues that affect the least developed countries, Indian officials said that two proposals on agriculture that relate to export subsidies and export of prescribed quantities of farm goods by developing countries at lower duties remain contentious.

India's commerce and industry minister Anand Sharma made it clear that he was unwilling to make any compromise on India's stand. "It is better to have no agreement than a bad agreement," Sharma said at a packed press conference in the Bali town.

"We are seeking a mature understanding from the US, the European Union and other developed countries. If out of 10 [proposals], India has endorsed eight, can we barter away and compromise the fundamental right on food security?" Sharma asked.

The politically combustible issue of farm protectionism has long bedevilled WTO plans for liberalised trade, and Indian concerns on the issue threaten to scupper that vision at the pivotal four-day conference.

WTO chief Roberto Azevedo is pushing trade ministers from around the world to reach a modest agreement on trade issues, including agriculture. He hopes that it could be the basis for a renewed push to salvage the faltering, 12-year-old Doha Round of talks on slashing international trade barriers.

According to the Western press, India's refusal to budge on subsidies for its millions of poor farmers has emerged as the key stumbling block to the success of the talks. But they fail to mention the subsidies given to farmers in their own countries; as well as the restrictions on imported manpower that they impose.

Hopes for a consensus were already low after negotiators failed to agree on a limited package last week in Geneva to present at the gathering.

In Geneva, India appeared to have agreed to a compromise deal, including a so-called "peace clause" allowing it to hand out subsidies above a WTO cap for around four years without challenge. But, following resistance from powerful farmers' unions and opposition parties, New Delhi hardened its stance.

Sharma told his fellow commerce ministers in Bali on Wednesday that the "peace clause" as it stands in the draft Bali deal "cannot be accepted".

"Agriculture sustains millions of subsistence farmers. Their interests must be secured. Food security is essential for four billion people of the world," he said.