If you can get 159 people to agree to anything, you must be a magician. Well, Roberto Azevêdo, did just that. The Brazilian is the Director General of the World Trade Organisation and today 159 countries agreed to a treaty. For years and years, nothing but bickering has the been the result - in Geneva, in Seattle, in Cancun, in Doha. But at last in Bali today, something has been signed. Modest it may be, that will set common customs standards and ease the flow of goods through borders around the world. But to get all 159 countries to sign up (even one could scuttle any deal), is a major achievement.
They almost didn't. The chief spoiler was India - at the end of the negotiations, virtually every country was pissed off with India. India was threatening to veto the deal on the issue of its programme to feed 75% of its population at subsidised rates (the unfortunate Right to Food Programme). India's stand in most multilateral forums is to shout loudly, be a spoiler, pontificate, and in general be a nuisance. Such a position was usually the role of the United States, which remains very good in pontificating. But in the last decade, the developing countries have been big noise makers - none more so than India. At the end of the Bali round, Anand Sharma, India's Commerce Minister is not going to be very welcome in most parts of the world. But finally he did relent and India signed too.
A global free trade agreement is in everybody's interests, although the loony left usually rail against any form of globalisation. Most countries have come to realise the value of free trade, except for the problem that they want it to be free when it suits them and want to shamelessly protect when they encounter some lobby or the other. One of the chief culprits is the self appointed bastion of free trade , the United States. It champions free trade to other countries, but has horrible market distorting subsidies in a wide range of industries - chiefly farming. So does the EU. Both of them want free trade, but do everything in their power to stop free movement of services - the draconian visa restrictions is as trade blocking a move as any customs barrier. India wants the US and everybody else to let it freely export IT services (the one thing it is good at), but refuses to import say wheat or onions . China wants to export to the world, but will not allow foreigners anywhere near banking, insurance, etc. Everybody is protecting special lobbies and screwing the consumers in the bargain - the consumer has a right to the best and cheapest product, wherever it may originate from and yet governments do their best to block this, citing the need to protect some powerful lobby, usually of the rich.
It is not this blog's intention to make the case for free trade - it has been well made by far more illustrious men and women. In any case, no rational argument is going to convince the loony left and the rabid right - so why even try ? This post instead is going to plead for a "National Trade Organisation" inside India itself. If you thought there is free trade inside India, you are grossly mistaken. Each state draws it boundaries, and the sight of the long queue of trucks on the state border is enough to tell you that every possible block is made on the free movement of goods. The honourable lady in charge of one of our Eastern states went even to the extent of banning the movement of potatoes from her state to the North East recently, ostensibly to reduce potato prices in her state. She was literally playing with a nuclear bomb - first of all her act was grossly unconstitutional and secondly if every state decided to copy her, what will become of India.
For years, India has been trying to implement the Goods and Services Tax - a common indirect tax regime across the country. Nobody can get the States to agree (although I am sure none of the honourable finance ministers of any state can cogently argue why he is opposing this ). BJP Chief Ministers are the chief blockers although the idea itself came about when Vajpayee was the Prime Minister and the move was a BJP brain child. Freeing up the state borders will do wonders to India's economy. The only person it will hurt is Ramamritham - and he along with his political masters are doing their best to block this.
Mr Anand Sharma is not going to be very welcome outside India. Maybe he may want to sit in Delhi and try and get a national treaty signed by all states. After all, there are only 35 states and union territories. And if 159 countries can agree to a treaty, surely 35 states can. Oh I forgot. In the WTO, there is only 1 India - Inside, there are 35 India types, each worse than the other. Fat chance of a deal.