The WTO meeting in December 2017 stalled on the fisheries subsidies agenda, when India insisted on prioritising food and livelihood security, prompting much criticism from state and non-state actors.
“From the days of the Indo-Norwegian Project (INP) reform in the marine and fisheries sector (1950s), the Indian fishworker was always taken for granted by the state! We were told to give up our traditional kattamarans and embrace mechanised boats, to go deeper, to be able to sail better, to catch more fish. We were told to exploit Mother Sea, which we traditionally feared and worshipped. After all, when the whole world was running for more profits under a capitalist pursuit, how could you exclude the fishers, whose sustenance depended on a better catch of fish?”
– National Fishworkers’ Forum.
These are important words to recall as trade ministers from around the world meet in New Delhi today at the multi-ministerial meeting convened by the Ministry of Commerce and Industry. This is a follow up to the December 2017 WTO meeting where negotiations stalled on the fisheries subsidies agenda. The stalemate was a result of India‘s priority to guarantee food and livelihood security, prompting much criticism from state and non-state actors.
Developing countries are under tremendous pressure to expand their production of seafood (wild-caught and farmed) to as much as 73 per cent by 2030, which could contribute to their growing export trade. Given the WTO’s mandate to regulate trade, these multilateral negotiations are seen as an important platform to discipline fisheries subsidies.
It is worth bearing in mind that subsidies have been at the heart of fisheries development for countries like the US, Norway and many others in the EU. History is replete with stories of how these States provisioned capital to their erstwhile infant fishing industries. If seven decades ago, the promotion of subsidies was seen as critical to trade development, today their removal is seen as an antidote to the ocean crisis.
Over the last 20 years, the discourse around disciplining subsidies has been linked to their contribution to both overfishing as well as their market distorting effects. The overfishing argument relies on a very reductionist view of fisheries stemming from Malthusian theories which focus on impacts of population and poverty on resources. These have homogenised fisheries into a narrative where a higher population contributes to the ‘overcapacity’ of fishing vessels and in combination with poverty results in ‘overfishing’.
However, this masks the other major drivers of marine resource depletion. For instance, developed countries, encompassing a mere 12% of the world’s population, consume 30% of the world’s fish supply. This demand is what drove the transfer of technology from Norway to India in the 1960s, reorienting subsistence-based fishery towards an export-oriented industry. However, even today at a broad level, Indian fisheries remain small-scale, largely overlapping the categories of ‘small-scale artisanal’ and ‘small-scale commercial’.
As a result, in India subsidies should be looked beyond their international market distorting effects and more as the mechanism of the state to deliver on its welfare mandate. Reflecting on the way the fisheries sector has evolved in the last 70 years makes it apparent that Indian democracy, while founded on the principles of socialism, was never exempt from the pressures of the free market.
A 2013 report by the UNCTAD puts the value of Global Value Chains coordinated by Transnational Corporations (TNCs) at a whopping 80%. From its beginnings, the WTO has been an essential institution to advance and accelerate these interests.
The recent move by the US to hike anti-dumping duties on Indian shrimp imports can be seen both as a continuation of lopsided protectionism within the WTO as well as the subjection of the WTO to the whims and fancies of powerful nations. In addition, the absence of any representation of small scale food producers, including small scale fishers, jeopardises the WTO’s own commitment to Special and Differential Treatment (SDT). The public perception and the urgency to respond to the ocean crisis have managed to draw world attention away from the larger issues of power imbalances within and outside the WTO.
In India, the manner in which Neel-Kranti (intensive aquaculture, deep-sea fishing) and Sagarmala (port-led development, nationalisation of rivers) projects are being implemented is a reflection of this imbalance. The current negotiations at the WTO must therefore be situated in this context, where for the average fishworker, domestic policies for coastal development threaten physical displacement and the disciplining of subsidies spells economic marginalisation.
There are two major points of intervention-and reinvention- that are needed to move ahead on the subject of fisheries subsidies. The WTO needs to be reformed towards a more level-playing field by re-visiting the principles of democracy and transparency. Simultaneously, the Indian state must reform national policies away from prioritising export trade, exploiting new fishing grounds and increasing private investment and instead put fishworkers at the centre of decision making. This will give impetus to the demands for a fairer globalised food system with the inclusion and participation of the world’s primary food producers.