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NEW DELHI : India will safeguard the interests of its farm, dairy and fishery sectors while finalizing multilateral or bilateral trade deals, including talks at the 12th Ministerial Conference of the World Trade Organization (WTO) as well as ongoing bilateral trade negotiations with countries such as Australia, said two government officials aware of the trade negotiations.

New Delhi’s stand at all multilateral and bilateral fora has been consistent and explicitly clear for a developing and populous country such as India; food security of the underprivileged is of paramount importance as is the protection of the interests of the three sectors, the officials said requesting anonymity.

“India is committed to protecting its agriculture sector. This was evident from the prime minister’s last-minute decision on 4 November 2019 to exit the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), despite it being one of the biggest trade blocs," one of the two officials said.

“Whether negotiating free-trade agreements (FTAs) with individual countries or at the WTO, the government will keep Indian interests first. Certain sectors, such as public procurement for food security, agriculture, dairy and fisheries, are sensitive and the government will not compromise with it at any cost," the official said.

New Delhi walked out of RCEP as it realized that the deal could flood the Indian market with Chinese goods at the cost of the local industry, while cheaper imports of milk derivatives from Australia and New Zealand would be detrimental to the health of India’s dairy industry, he added.

RCEP covers 30% of the world’s population, contributing $25.8 trillion or about 30% of global gross domestic product, and accounting for $12.7 trillion or a little over a quarter of global goods and services trade. The 10-member RCEP includes Australia, China, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea.

The apprehension about ongoing negotiations of the FTA with Australia involving imports of dairy and agriculture products is incorrect, the second official said. “It is clarified that negotiations have focused entirely on mutually beneficial items of trade, and India has not made any offer at all in these (dairy or agriculture) sectors to Australia," the official said.

The official was reacting to a tweet by Bhartiya Kisan Union’s national spokesperson Rakesh Tikait on Saturday alleging that India will be signing a deal with Australia, which will allow milk imports at 20-22 per litre, much lower than the retail price of locally-produced milk, at 50-60 a litre.

“There is no proposal for any duty concession on the import of dairy products into India with Australia under consideration with the department of animal husbandry and dairying," Parshottam Rupala, Union minister for fisheries, animal husbandry and dairy, said in a tweet in Hindi on Tuesday.

“Regarding dairy, India has already opened up some sub-sectors in its trade in goods agreement with Asean and comprehensive agreements with Japan and Korea. However, Indian companies are not able to export to key markets like the UK, EU and Australia, and they face almost an entry ban as they are not able to meet the export requirements," said Arpita Mukherjee, professor, Indian Council for Research on International Economic Relations. “There is a strong lobby in India, which is against reducing tariff through trade agreements on imports from the UK, EU, Australia. However, this is not the view of all companies, which use dairy as an ingredient in processing, and would like this sector to have lower duties on ingredients for processing," she added.

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