'Deadline for completing the Doha Round likely to be met' says Harshvardhan Singh, Deputy DG, WTO

26 March, 2006
After the Hong Kong ministerial meet of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) last December, not much progress seems to have been made in key areas of the ongoing negotiations. The recent meeting of the G-6 countries, including India, was not very productive. However, with the end-April deadline of finalising modalities in agriculture and industrial goods (Nama) drawing near, there seems to be some urgency in the air. Amiti Sen caught up with WTO deputy director-general Harshvardhan Singh during his recent visit to Delhi to find out what is happening behind the scenes. In his first interview to the Indian media after assuming office last year, Mr Singh explains why he is optimistic that the Doha Round will yield positive results. Excerpts:

In the backdrop of the London meeting of G-6 ministers, how optimistic is the DG's office that the year-end deadline of completing the Doha Round can be met?

Reasonably optimistic, because the meeting was the first serious look at the range of numbers at the ministerial level. A detailed and intensive discussion took place there. This is now being supplemented by meetings of senior officials in various groups. I think there is a reasonable possibility of meeting the deadline.

Did you see a convergence on numbers emerging at the meeting?

Yes. It became clear what ranges would work and what would not. There was a convergence towards something which would be a solution.It was a very serious and substantive discussion, going beyond principles. Developing countries, especially India, are stressing on special and differential treatment (S&DT), and the incorporation of less than full reciprocity in the formula for reducing agriculture and industrial tariffs. Commerce minister Kamal Nath has been quite vocal in his demands.

What is happening in this area?

S&DT was certainly a part of the discussions. Mr Nath was part of that meeting and was representing a number of groups, including the G-20 and G-33. So, he had a strong and powerful presence there.

What role do you think India is playing in the whole discussion?

The importance of India in terms of its position and its significance in the system, is recognised by the fact that the new G-4, which discusses crucial WTO issues, has India as one of the four members. India's taking care of its own interests and is also linking up with a number of other interests amongst groups of developing countries. The important role being played by India is also getting recognised by others.

How are the talks going to progress at the WTO now?

Discussions take place at the WTO at four different levels. At one level, senior officials keep meeting in different groups, trying to find the implications of the proposals of various sides and discussing and narrowing further possibilities. Now, members have started giving something in writing for consideration. That is a key aspect of the entire process, as you then have proposals in front of you to take it further. Another level is where countries have bilateral or plurilateral discussions. Yet another kind is where the meetings are held within the auspices of the negotiating group, as such.

While the first two are initiatives of the members themselves, the third is the framework in the bottom-up process of the WTO. We have now reached a situation which involves having meetings on issues within a period of time -clusters like agri week and Nama week-where experts from the Capital are also in Geneva. However, all this has to be within a political framework, the limit of which is defined by the ministers themselves at the highest level.

Director-General Pascal Lamy attends many informal mini-ministerials, like the one in London. What role does he play at such meets?

The DG does not play an active role, since he is not one of the ministers, and also because it is a bottom-up process. But since he is part of the system, an important part who represents the rest of the system, especially those members who are not part of those meeting, his presence becomes important. It is also useful for the ministers to have those other views and is a reflection of his credibility.

At the end of April, when the deadline for finalising modalities is to be met, what kind of meeting will take place at the WTO?

I think that the countries will keep discussing and if they reach a conclusion, there will be some kind of a meeting of the General Council or the Trade Negotiations Committee. The GC anyway includes ministers who are represented by the ambassadors in its normal, day-to-day functioning. To the extent ministers are present at that time, they will be part of the meeting.

So, if something as important as a decision on modalities is pending, the ministers may come?

Yes, sure. Ministers may feel it would be important to give a final push to the talks and may meet in different regions also, to begin with, and then move towards something which converges towards a finalisation of modalities.

In services, are the plurilateral discussions initiated in Hong Kong working out?

When plurilateral efforts began, the general confidence level was low, because the issues which countries needed to reach an agreement on were difficult. However, it was done. Then, people were thinking that maybe six or eight requests will come by the deadline of February 28. About 14 came. I think the number will soon grow to 20. Some countries looking for more commitments may come up with bilateral requests too. In the process of finalising the requests, people have tried to make sure that these are reasonable, yet substantive. This means that the process is rooted in reality, a good start for the negotiation.