Demystifying ‘National Interest’ in the US-India partnership

Urvashi Sarkar is a freelance journalist and works with the South Solidarity Initiative.  She tweets @storyandworse.

Urvashi Sarkar

Barring a parting cautionary remark on religious intolerance, US President Obama’s three day visit to India was marked by a heady celebration of India-US political and economic ties. And in the ensuing din on issues such as the nuclear deal, renewal of the defense agreement, and announcement of multi-billion dollar investments- a number of critical voices on health, agriculture, and nuclear energy went entirely unheard, or were little heard.

Hazards to health

At the India-US CEO business forum, President Obama stated that the absence of effective IP (intellectual property) protection in India was affecting business. On the contrary, India’s patent laws protect and promote access to affordable generic medicines for millions of sick people; earning India the title of pharmacy of the world. What the laws do not protect is the interest of multinational pharmaceutical corporations in patenting medicines on dubious grounds,  and which cause such medicines to be exorbitantly priced.

According to a 2014 UNAIDS report, India has the third largest number of HIV infected with 2.1 million individuals. Across the world, 35 million people live with the virus. Not only HIV infected individuals, but people with cancer, Hepatitis C and other diseases require access to affordable drugs.

President Barack Obama toasts Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a State Dinner in New Delhi (photo: Pete Souza)
President Barack Obama toasts Prime Minister Narendra Modi during a State Dinner in New Delhi (photo: Pete Souza)

Following  Prime Minister Modi’s comment that India was ready to accept suggestions made by a joint working group with the United States on intellectual property rights-  civil society and patient groups reacted in a statement: “It is now clear that the Indian government is willing to sell the interests of Indian patients in order to please US based pharmaceutical companies. If this is the outcome of President Obama’s visit then the fears of Indian patient groups and civil society that this visit would adversely affect the health of millions are more than realized.”

In the days approaching Obama’s visit, Indian groups such as Lawyers Collective, Delhi Network of Positive People, National Working Group on Patent Laws and Jan Swasthya  Abhiyan had voiced their apprehensions about the dilution of Indian patent  laws.  US-based health groups too had issued a statement urging Obama to promote health in India and not narrow pharmaceutical interests.  Such statements predictably did not receive sufficient coverage.

Farmers’ voices

 Indian farmers constitute another group deeply impacted by the United States trade and subsidy policies.

 The Presidents of Mali and Burkina Faso writing in a New York Times article noted “in the period from 2001-2002: America’s 25,000 cotton farmers received more in subsidies — some $3 billion — than the entire economic output of Burkina Faso, where two million people depend on cotton. Further, United States subsidies are concentrated on just 10 percent of its cotton farmers. Thus, the payments to about 2500 relatively well-off farmers has the unintended but nevertheless real effect of impoverishing some 10 million rural poor people in West and Central Africa.” Though the two African presidents wrote this article more than a decade ago, the argument still holds since the US continues to  give considerable  subsidies to its cotton farmers.

The provision of such subsidies have depressed cotton prices in India too. In Gujarat, cotton farmers have been agitating over a better minimum support price- with farmers committing suicide.  According to NCRB (National Crime Records Bureau) data 2,96,438  farmers committed  suicide from 1995-2013, many of them cash crop farmers, such as those in cotton farming.

Ironically, despite the US granting large scale domestic subsidies in cotton and food crops, it opposed India’s food procurement subsidies that provide a minimum support price to   farmers, who are often hit by globally depressed prices. 

Anti-nuclear protests

Even as the stage was being set for greater India-US civil nuclear cooperation – the sarpanches of Jaspara, Mithi Virdi, Mandva and Khadarpar villages in Gujarat wrote a letter to Modi and Obama expressing reservations about the proposed installation of six 1000 MW nuclear reactors by Nuclear Power Corporation of India Ltd (NPCIL) and American company Westinghouse Electric Corporation in their area.

The letter mentions threats to agricultural land and livelihoods by the proposed nuclear project, raises questions about the nomination of Engineers India Limited (EIL), an environmental consulting firm which lacks accreditation to conduct environmental impact assessment for nuclear power plants, and the absence of sanction from the gram panchayats of the affected villages.

It also cites public safety fears, given that the project site is about 5 km from a lignite mining site and also in the vicinity of Alang, Asia’s biggest ship-breaking yard. Among other things, the letter calls for a “fair and open discussion” on the proposed nuclear power plant project before any decision is taken.  There were also protests in Maharashtra’s Jaitapur, the site for a nuclear power project to be set up in collaboration with France. While the letter to Obama from Gujarat’s villagers received some attention, the Jaitapur protests went largely unnoticed.

The undermining of such voices leads us to ask, who are the beneficiaries of deeper India-US ties?  While business and defense interests have taken privilege in the framing of India’s foreign policy and national interest, it has as usual been at the cost of the poor and disempowered.    

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