Peasants Can Unite the Global South to Beat Back Food Shortages
MSP, WTO and the peasant movement
In an earlier article for The Citizen I had outlined the elements of a new paradigm of a global regime on trade, investment and technology.The trigger for that piece was the body blow delivered by COVID 19 pandemic to the prevailing "global regime".
Humanity , or rather the better off sections of it, are feeling relieved as the pandemic was controlled, although the manner in which the control was secured has been clumsy, lopsided and reflective of the inherent inequity of the present global (dis-) order.
But even that sigh of relief from the beneficiaries of the order, such as it is, has proved short lived. The eruption of the Ukraine crisis within a short space of two years after the outbreak of the pandemic has shaken the foundation of the "global order" much more dramatically than the pandemic.
It is quite clear now that the ambitious and rapacious global order whose hallmark has been the supremacy of the US dollar and the smooth movement of finance capital across the national borders has been effectively challenged.
Its global domain has been fractured through sanctions enforced on Russia and the latter's adroit response to it.The Russian response is as much rooted in its preparedness to absorb short-run setbacks as it is in its relative surplus in energy, food and metals.
China,a late entrant into the challenged global order,has succeeded in dominating international trade, developing cutting edge technologies and providing a novel vehicle for expanding its investments abroad. In regard to the US $, the Chinese yuan has created for itself a novel, symbiotic relationship of mutual interdependence which has enhanced China's degree of policy autonomy in the global financial order. With its avowed " friendship without limits" with Russia, the rupture of the domain of the prevalent global order brought into being in 'nineteen 'nineties has become evident.
Whatever way the Ukraine crisis ends, this rupture is there to stay.
Other non- European members of the order are already sensing the inherent insecurity of such a fractured order and exploring ways of fortifying their position to the extent possible and trying to keep their options open. India' s nuanced position is an example. It will not be wrong to expect many other countries of the South including some important oil exporters hedging their bets in a similar fashion.The large number of abstainers on the resolutions sponsored by USA to target Russia is a pointer.
Irrespective of the shenanigans about "democracy and free world" vs " autocracies and oligarchs", national self- interest will compel the nations of the South to be contributors to the demise of the present global order.
In this process, India's role will be of significance, because of its economic weight, its geography and demography as well as its history of following an independent trajectory.
It is not a matter of choice for a given set of rulers of India. The objective situation will dictate India's course of action.Let us elaborate this.
The agrarian crisis is the most pressing challenge that India is facing. This crisis has many layers and facets. Its most important feature is the trajectory of globalisation that is being imposed on it by AoA of the world Trade Organisation. The impossibility of the trajectory is illustrated in the quandary that the Government of India is facing. It is caught in a cleft stick.
It cannot guarantee the Minimum Support Price, the most important and reasonable demand of the peasantry as a whole, notwithstanding the very small number of peasants producing marketable surplus.It can not also reject it, much as it would like to. That is why its prevarication and empty sloganeering :"MSP has been there, is there and will be there!".
The trump card that GoI has up its sleeves is AoA of WTO. GoI hopes that pointing a finger to the supra-national authority will enable it to finally say "no", with little political damage.
The inkling of this course of action is already there: the Prime Minister has announced that India has asked for "WTO's permission" to export food grains from public stockholdings.He knows that no such " permission" is possible under the extant regime of AoA, notwithstanding " the peace clause" negotiated in Bali. He knows that a similar request for " permission" to WTO in regard to MSP will also be emphatically rejected.
What should be the response of the peasantry ? Should their representatives enter into a detailed techno- legal argumentation with GoI on the question of securing appropriate amendments to AoA through negotiations in the WTO forum ? Will GoI be ready to respond to such argumentation?And even if an agreed position emerges as a result of such discussions,will it by itself be adequate to secure suitable amendments to AoA?
A moment's reflection will lead one to realise the will- o' -wisp character of such an approach.
At every stage, an outside non- government agency like a representative body of agitating peasantry will find itself handicapped both on facts and arguments.Moreover, the result in the WTO forum will be likely determined by relative support GoI will be willing and able to muster in the WTO forum to its stand and not only on the strength of the logic of its arguments.And a non- government agency like the peasants' organisation will have no means of mustering such support. And, above all, there isnot a ghost of chance that the dominating members of WTO on the question of agriculture, namely, USA, European Union, Canada, Australia , New Zealand (even if we leave out the two important countries of the South: Argentina and Brazil) will ever "permit" such a breach of AoA which will virtually upset all that they were able to secure through protracted negotiations preceding the genesis of WTO, an important breakthrough in that process being the Blair House agreement between USA and EEC( EU) in 1992.
So it will be a wild goose chase.
This kind of predicament is always encountered by a non- government agency like the peasants' representative body when the latter chooses to fight the GoI on the latter's exclusive turf of international negotiations .
In the circumstances, the obvious and a far more effective strategy would be to engage GoI on the turf of the choice of the peasants' organisation. Which the peasantry has already been doing for some time when it came to the three"black" laws "and MSP.
The "three black laws" on agriculture marketing were repealed because the peasantry fought the long battle on a self- chosen turf, without getting lost in techno- legalities, particularly those which pertained to an international agreement (AoA) , and an international forum (WTO).Its thrust was political and it succeeded in its mission because that thrust hit the GoI at its weakest.
And history was made compelling the GoI to repeal "the black laws."
The first requisite of effective pursuit of its continuing struggle for MSP is to realize that the AoA of WTO as it is, will never permit that kind of policy freedom to GoI. It is not a matter of " some clever amendment of a clause here" or "a smart insertion of a footnote there" in AoA. As we have said earlier, it amounts to negation of one of three major achievements of the North which led to the creation of WTO, at the enormous and continuing cost of the South :
A. Opening the "Services" markets which paved the way for the global ascendancy of finance capital, embodying the very essence and the pervasive presence of neo- imperialism.
b. Creating a new and expanding source for aggrandizement for the North through rentier incomes derived from the the so- called "intellectual property rights"; and
C. Creating a new dependency relation through AoA consisting of (i) legal recognition to a highly subsidised pattern of agriculture in the North; (ii) a rigorous discipline on the South ensuring open markets for the agribusiness of the North; and preventing/rigorously regulating supportive state policies such as subsidies and public stocking in the South; and (c ) creating an economic environment whereby the tropical lands of the South are diverted away from foodgrains production and towards fulfilling the tastes and preferences of the North for" exotic produce and cheap raw materials.
It is well worth remembering that both the USA and EEC enjoyed vast autonomy in regard to agricultural production and trade policies for decades.USA had secured the notorious " waiver" from any discipline of GATT, right at the time of the formation of GATT. And EEC established, soon after it came into being, a " Common Agriculture Policy'' which secured for its members a generous regime of subsidisation of its agriculture, facilitating expanding exports.
A net importer of agricultural products in nineteen fifties, EEC became a major exporter by nineteen eighties threatening USA' s dominance in world markets which, in turn, prompted USA to demand a comprehensive international regime in the Uruguay Round which culminated in AoA. A pact between the two great subsiders of agriculture to retain their regimes substantially in tact was a precondition of AoA of WTO to be born.
In the changed international environment, openings that were not available until recently are likely to be available. Food shortages are likely to develop not only in many poor, third world countries but also in some of those of the rich, first world countries . The main challenger of the present global order is, as noted earlier, a large exporter of wheat.Some countries of the South like Argentina,Brazil,Mexico,Thailand, Malaysia , Myanmar are substantial exporters of agricultural products.
What is needed is a bold initiative in WTO to mobilise support , especially of the countries of the South, for a fresh look at the whole problem of global agrarian economy at the present critical juncture.The guiding principles should be :
(a) Ensuring food sovereignty of all countries;
(b) Ensuring a large degree of policy autonomy to developing countries in the matter of agricultural production, pricing, incomes and trade; in particular, to ensure food security to all, and remunerative pricing and decent income to the peasantry and to facilitate orderly transfer of surplus agricultural labour force to non- agricultural activities;
(c) Promoting equitable and fair opportunities for international trade in agricultural products;
(d) Promoting direct trade measures such as long term contracts to facilitate viable trade in foodstuffs, particularly among developing countries to mutual advantage of surplus and deficit countries.
(e) Promote international cooperation to set up regional/country level foodstocks to ensure price stability and as an insurance against shortages due to climatic or speculative reasons;
(f) To promote agricultural practices that protect and promote the cause of preservation of land, environment and ecology and ensure optimal use and conservation of water;
(g) To promote cooperative approach at local, regional and international levels, in regard to agricultural production, storage, processing, trade and research.
A considerable degree of policy autonomy is an issue on which it should be possible to muster support of a large majority of the countries of the South. Even some developed countries such as Japan, South Korea, may find it of interest.
Russia and China should not be averse to such a move.Russia has adroitly challenged the global order of US $ supremacy. China is supporting Russia to the hilt. A call from the South to review and reconsider the present dispensation of AoA which is essentially tailored to suit the requirements of USA and EEC and its agribusiness giants may, in all likelihood, evoke a positive response from both the powers.
For India and its present rulers, it should be a welcome opportunity to restore India's traditional role of prominence among the nations of the South.It will be a win- win situation for Russia, China and India.
And to top it all, GoI will find a graceful and pro- peasantry escape from its present dilemma on MSP. Instead of trying to play a trump card in the name of AoA of WTO which will have little political value vis- a- vis peasantry, GoI should convert iits dilemma into an opportunity. The suggested bold initiative will enable it to virtually put an embargo on AoA discipline, pending the outcome of the initiative.
Indeed, WTO is at its weakest in its history of long 27 years. It lost its real teeth, that is to say, its role as an arbiter in trade disputes.The Americans in the times of Trump had ensured the paralysis of the Appellate Dispute Settlement Body. And the free trade and RECP agreements have shifted the focus away from the WTO.
China's efforts to assume the role of a restorer and energiser of multilateralism in the Trump times had not met with much success.The covid related issues prompted China to retreat into a kind of isolation. And China now is decidedly moving into the opposite camp.
In such a context,it is pathetic for India to ask for " permission" of WTO, whether for exports of wheat or for guaranteeing MSP.
On the contrary, India should initiate, build and lead the campaign for a new and equitable order on agricultural production and trade. Time is opportune for such an initiative.
And the peasant movement now targeted on MSP should mount massive political pressure in favour of such an initiative, in the same way it did magnificently to get the black laws repealed.
Read also: a-new-paradigm-for-a-global-regime-on-trade-investment-and-technology
S.P.Shukla retired from the Indian Administrative Service as the Union Finance Secretary.