Reflection on the Process of which WTO Seattle Round of Negotiations was a part

Action in Seattle in 1999 just did not happen as an isolated event. It has been a part of a historical process which began much before 1999. Its impact continues since then. I have been a part of this journey in India since the late 1980s. So, below I present the continuum of which Seattle was an important part.

I had gone to the Seattle WTO meet in 1999 as a part of an NGO. I was a witness to the protests taking place all around the venue of the meeting. There were protests at various points in the city and a curfew around the main venue. It was difficult to move around but we visited various sites where the protests were taking place. Now I do not remember the names of the places we went to where demonstrations took place but these were widespread. Getting to the main venue was at times difficult with tight security and police helicopters hovering overhead. The US President, Clinton, could not come to the meeting and at the end came in a helicopter. This was the first big protest against the Washington consensus dictated globalization being imposed on the world since the 1980s.

It was the first time that NGOs were invited to witness the functioning of WTO. They could participate in the opening and closing sessions. They had no direct role in the WTO process since only government representatives were allowed to negotiate on behalf of their countries. It was up to the country representatives to consult the NGOs from their country. Some countries consulted more than the others and it depended on the personal equations. In the case of the Indian government officials, consultation was selective. The big industry groups from India, CII and FICCI were present as NGOs and were consulted by the officials but other NGOs like, from agriculture and small scale industry found themselves marginalized. This gave us a clearer perspective on the new form of globalization; dominated by big business and where the voice of the marginalized mattered little.

What also became clear in the few days of observation was that the voice of the developing world was weak in global fora. The Quad dominated the conversation and the negotiations. One heard of the advanced countries buying out the votes of the tiny nations by financing their trip to Seattle and through other means. Further, the developed nations created a divide among the developing countries by pointing to their lack of a common interest. But in the end, the Quad could not itself come to an agreement among themselves and the Seattle round could not achieve much.

The divide among the developing nations also came to the fore. Many of the nations did not trust India and Brazil to give the lead in the negotiations since in 1987, during the negotiations on the Dunkel Draft, these two countries had betrayed the trust reposed in them by the others. However, it was also realized that the developing nations had to come together if they were to protect their economic interest. This has been playing itself out in subsequent rounds of negotiations.

The big gain was that the NGOs from various nations came together and exchanged views. This was a strong learning process for me and many others. We got to understand at first hand the nuances of the negotiations and the differing positions of the developing world nations. This was important since it enabled the forging of a united front of NGOs from different nations, based on a common understanding of the issues being thrown up by the WTO. This was crucial for stronger resistance to the WTO process that developed subsequently. It was also important for the resistance that the developing world nations put up subsequently.

In India, from the late 1980s, concerned citizens started protesting around new issues being introduced in the Uruguay Round of negotiations, including the creation of WTO. WTO as a successor to GATT was seen as an attempt by the businesses of the developed countries to dominate policy making in the developing world. It was seen as a truncation of the sovereignty of the nation states and especially of the developing world. It was also seen as a marginalization of the marginals in society. Thus, India had seen protests and meetings since 1987 but more strongly when the Dunkel draft came up for negotiations in 1990.

In my own understanding, before going to Seattle, I had formulated the idea that India was subject to one-way globalization since the 1750s. So, the problem was not with globalization itself, if it was evenly balanced and was a two way process which was the case prior to 1750. It is this one-way globalization which marginalizes the marginals. In its latest phase starting from the mid-1970s it has taken on the shape of marketization which further marginalizes the marginals. Washington Consensus is nothing but the penetration of the marketization process in society. While markets have always existed, marketization is the new process which has produced a philosophical shift in thinking among people and led to a paradigm shift in policies.

This phase coincides with the ascendency of Thacherism and Reganism in the world, the decline of the Soviet Bloc and the one eighty degree turn post-Mao in China. It became clear to the Western powers that the developing world had nowhere to go so that it need not give concessions to the developing world. So, capturing the markets of the developing world countries became an option which was earlier circumscribed by the availability of alternatives. That is why the new issues introduced in the Uruguay Round were to open up agriculture, services, investment and intellectual property rights.

Unfortunately, in India, the political support for resistance to the WTO issues has been weak since the start. After the New Economic Policies (NEP) were launched in 1991, most mainstream political parties subscribed to the idea that there is no alternative (TINA). Even if they opposed the NEP and WTO when in opposition, they implemented these policies when they came to power. For instance, in 1997, a majority of the Indian parliamentarians opposed the new patent laws but when they came to power in 1998, they implemented what they had opposed.

What is clear is that the issues raised by us in 1990 and then in 1994 and later in 2000s are left far behind with newer issues coming up. The fight has been a losing one due to the weaknesses in the political processes in the developing world and the links of businesses globally with the domination of MNCs and strengthening of capital and weakening of labour.

During the Seattle Round of negotiations, the NDA government was in power. It had won on the plank of protection of indigenous businesses (Swadeshi) but after coming to power it overturned this plank and followed what the earlier governments had done. Thus, during the negotiations in Seattle, not much resistance to the stand of the advanced nations could be expected from the Indian government. No wonder it conceded the opening up of agriculture and in 2000, it liberalized the import of 1400 commodities. In Seattle, one heard the farmers groups complaining that the Indian government representatives were not consulting them.

After returning from Seattle, I wrote about this rich experience in an article in the well regarded Indian journal Economic and Political Weekly. I also gave several talks to academics and NGO groups and also briefed a few political leaders. This sharing of the first hand experience helped enriched the debate on WTO and its consequences for the Indian economy. I had been arguing prior to going to Seattle that the choice before the developing world nations was to be coerced either bilaterally or multilaterally and this came out clearly in my observations at Seattle.

Personally, it helped me to understand the process of globalization better and I have incorporated it in my analysis of development economics which I used to teach in Jawaharlal Nehru University before I retired in 2015. I have also delivered a large number of lectures on the topic of globalization since then and I often give examples based on my observations at Seattle.

Arun Kumar, Malcolm Adiseshiah Chair Professor, Institute of Social Sciences.
Author of `Indian Economy since Independence: Persisting Colonial Disruption.’ Vision Books. 2013