Published on IPSnews, by Ranjit Devraj, Aug. 8, 2009.
NEW DELHI, Aug 8 (IPS) – Southern Kerala state is known for the lush expanses of cardamom, pepper, tea and rubber that grow on its misty hills, and the bountiful catches of fish on a coastline punctuated by lagoons and backwaters. But a cloud hovers over this picture of plenty – a free trade deal with the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) bloc.
With the Indo-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement (FTA) now slated to become operative in Jan. 2010, agricultural experts, fishermen’s representatives, trade union leaders and Kerala’s Marxist Chief Minister V.S. Achuthanandan have been at pains to convince the pro-reform central government of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh that the deal should be postponed or scuttled.
India is a dialogue partner at ASEAN – which comprises Brunei, Cambodia, Indonesia, Laos, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam. ASEAN already has FTAs with three other dialogue partners – China, Japan and South Korea …
… In fact, sensing the danger, the National Fish Workers Forum (NFF) and the Kerala Free Fish Workers Federation (KSMTF) are leading a nation-wide programme of agitation that is being planned to halt the trade deal with ASEAN.
“Cheap imports of fish will threaten the livelihood of fish workers. The pact will enable the dumping of 177 species of fish in the Indian market,” said T. Peter, president of the KSMTF. “We are confident of winning popular support from consumers in India because the fresh catches of anchovy, lobster, crab, sardine, mackerel, shark, shrimp and squid they are used to will soon be replaced by refrigerated imports.”
Peter said that at a time of deep financial and agrarian crisis – when many countries are rejecting free trade policies – the Singh government’s argument that India will be isolated in the world economy if it does not sign this FTA was hard to swallow. “We do not believe that adequate scrutiny of this FTA has been done – agriculture and fisheries groups in Kerala and other states have certainly not been consulted.”
“As far as fisheries are concerned, recent years have seen fish stocks depleted due to over fishing by trawlers and foreign vessels, and falling prices forcing many fishermen in Kerala to find other means of livelihood,” Peter said. “Further liberalisation of fisheries in the name of increasing trade will only deepen the problems of the fishing community.”
The biggest threats come from Thailand, the world’s largest exporter of farmed shrimp, and Vietnam, the world’s eighth largest seafood exporter.
Afsar Jafri from Focus on the Global South, a regional research and campaign group that monitors trade liberalisation initiatives in Asia, said Malaysia’s powerful palm oil industry has been lobbying hard for the FTA. “Malaysia is the world’s largest producer of this vegetable oil and its duty free import into the Indian market will adversely impact crops like tea, coffee, coconut, rubber and pepper farmers.”
Verghese said that Kerala’s food security has already been compromised by a massive shift from staples like paddy to cash crops with the centre providing no support against price fluctuations.
“Even if a negative list provides protection to major cash crops, as is being claimed by central leaders, it is only for a few years,” Varghese said. “What is the guarantee that crops like rubber, tea, pepper and coffee will gain in productivity and competitiveness in that time?” (full text).