New Delhi: Ministers from more than 30 countries met in New Delhi on Thursday for talks that the World Trade Organization (WTO) chief said could lay the groundwork for a new global free trade pact next year.

“The WTO ministers will have the opportunity to map out how they intend to bring the Doha Round to a close in 2010," WTO director general Pascal Lamy told a business forum, referring to the round of negotiations that started in 2001. “The meeting can be the real beginning of the end game," he added.

End game begins? WTO director general Pascal Lamy arrives at the WTO mini-ministerial meeting in New Delhi on Thursday. AP

“This (development) mandate is the bedrock of the Doha Round," he told delegates, according to a copy of his speech distributed to journalists.

The WTO-led Doha Round of talks began with the aim of boosting global commerce to help developing countries, but deadlock between the major trading blocs has dashed repeated attempts to forge a pact.

The push in July last year in Geneva ended in failure, but with new governments installed in Washington and host nation India, there is renewed hope for the success of another drive in 2010.

The two days of informal ministerial level talks in New Delhi are also seen as preparation for further progress at a meeting of leaders of the Group of 20 wealthy and emerging countries in Pittsburgh in the US later this month. The meeting is “a collective endeavour to build a broad-based consensus on the way forward", Sharma said.

India’s disagreement with the US over farm subsidies contributed to the collapse of the negotiations in Geneva last year.

The vast South Asian nation, which has hundreds of millions of subsistence farmers who fear imports from rich countries, has grabbed the initiative to try to re-energize the stalled negotiations.

As Sharma spoke, a crowd of farmers and social activists, estimated by the police to number around 10,000, blocked a main thoroughfare in the the city’s centre to demand that the government ditch Doha.

“We’re afraid the government will sign the pact. The rich countries with their subsidies will destroy Indian farmers," said Ajmer Singh Gill, a leader of the Bharat Kisan Union.

Before the meeting, Indian officials had sought to manage expectations by stressing that the meeting was designed to build momentum and would not feature a breakthrough on the myriad sticking points.

WTO members need to prepare “an agreed road map for overall negotiations", said Sharma in the five-star hotel in the diplomatic quarter that is the venue for this week’s talks.

In order for a final deal, all 153 WTO members must agree to a pact that would radically reduce subsidies given to North American and European farmers while lowering other trade barriers.

Countries such as India are afraid to open their markets and the US and the European Union are reluctant to abandon large agricultural subsidies that enjoy huge political popularity.

The talks should provide “the clarity needed to understand the opportunities for meaningful market access" and pave the way for a successful Doha conclusion, US trade representative Ron Kirk said ahead of the New Delhi talks.