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Striking a conciliatory note, trade minister Piyush Goyal said he would have to balance the interests of both consumers and large domestic companies who oppose the proposed e-commerce rules related to consumer protection. Goyal, who was in Dubai to inaugurate the India pavilion at the Dubai Expo 2020, said on Sunday that he hasn’t set a deadline to finalize the e-commerce rules. Edited excerpts from an interview:

Since the United Arab Emirates is more of a trading hub and not a significant non-oil producer, don’t you think tariff elimination on our side will lead to dumping of goods through a circuitous route?

The rules on ‘country of origin" will be very well defined and very well articulated. The UAE government has given me confidence that they are not looking at an FTA (free-trade agreement) with India to encourage anybody to misuse that. We can trust the UAE, which has a very strong implementation of laws, to ensure goods that claim the benefit of FTA will need a certificate of country of origin. The UAE will ensure genuine goods come in.

In an interview with Mint recently, the UAE trade minister said there wouldn’t be further negotiations after the trade deal is signed in six months, while India has been signalling that it will be a mini trade deal and a comprehensive trade deal will be signed later.

If we could sign the full agreement in six months, then it would be better than anything else. Why do an interim if we could finalize an FTA? So we are working on both. If we can finish the full agreement, we will be happy. We have agreed to do a full FTA. But if it takes time, then we can think of negotiating the full FTA later.

But do you think negotiating an FTA in three months and signing in six months is feasible?

Three months is, of course, a challenging task, but our officials are working. We have dedicated on both sides full-time officials to sit, discuss and finalize things. Prime Minister Modi and his Highness the Crown Prince are very good friends. That trust makes all the difference.

The consultation for the proposed e-commerce rules started a few months ago. Have you been able to reach a common ground with the finance ministry and others that have opposed many of its provisions?

This is a consultation process. Ministries give their comment, then we have a dialogue, and out of that dialogue, we will have the best rules in place.

How soon will the e-commerce rules be notified?

We have not set a deadline. We are still in consultations and discussions with all stakeholders because, after all, the consumer interest has to be protected. One can’t go by the interest of only one section. Consumers and small retailers have welcomed these rules. There is some concern of large companies. I have to balance all interests so that equitable benefit is there for everybody.

Large domestic players have opposed asking why they should be subjected to a marketplace model where FDI restrictions apply. These are all good inputs that we have received. If there are certain improvements to be made or clarifications need to be issued to these rules, we would be very happy to do it. There is a marketplace model, and there is an inventory-based model. We need to define both separately and properly. But bear in mind, these are consumer protection rules. They will apply to all (both domestic and foreign e-commerce players). The idea behind the rules is consumer does not get into problems or losses in the long run. We have to protect consumer interests for years to come. These decisions are not taken based on what happens today. For example, there is a discussion around predatory pricing. Today, they may sell something very cheap. But in the long run, after the competition is eliminated, the consumer will suffer. If the pricing is discounted by the supplier himself, that is understandable. But if it is subsidized by the intermediary, then it is unfair.

You have held consultations on high shipping freight tariffs. What are the short-run and long-run measures the government is considering in this regard?

We have been talking to the shipping companies to increase the number of ships that hit the Indian ports, increase the availability of containers by bringing in empty containers also if required. We are trying to ensure any container in the country which may be not in use or storing goods for a long period of time they are leased quickly so that they are available for exports. But these are measures we have to do in consultation with the shipping industry and the ministry.

The writer is in Dubai at the invitation of industry body Ficci.

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