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COST OF TRADE

Bali is a legendary island. We know it as the only place outside India where the Hindu religion survives. The rest of the world knows it as a serene island of beautiful dancers. No wonder the word traders of the world decided to congregate there. After it invited the World Trade Organization to hold its ninth preliminary negotiations in Bali, Indonesia realized that while it had many nooks and corners for loving couples, none was big enough to hold the few hundred ministers and their few thousand hangers-on. There were numerous shikharas on the slender temples, but no one had heard of a summit. So it hurried to build a conference centre, and install therein sensitive microphones to convey a hundred tongues and comfortable chairs for listeners to slumber on. It was a rush; the Balinese are not used to doing anything in a hurry, and do not count savvy contractors amongst themselves. As the delegations flew in, the last debris was being carted away, and the last strokes of paint applied.

Finally, the convention centre was ready to seat 3100 delegates, served by eight simultaneous interpreters. There were not enough meeting rooms for the different caucuses; so removable partitions were installed to convert the conference hall into separate rooms. They were fine for the European, Latino or African ministers, but they had numerous sherpas who needed their own little rooms to meet. So a mezzanine floor was inserted with 14 meeting rooms, appropriately called Kintamani. That was not grand enough for the high and mighty, so a Singaraja lounge was added. But then, members of the Asia Pacific Economic Cooperation Council asked to be allowed to meet in Bali too; so a second conference centre was built.

The precautions were well rewarded, for the WTO meeting saw spectacular fireworks. The chief actor in the drama was the Indian delegation, which milled around carrying the banner of food security. The primary mission of the WTO, and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Trade and Tariffs, has been removal of international trade restrictions. India loves free trade, but only as long as others practise it. It fought a 50-year war against reducing its own trade restrictions, arguing that it was a perpetually developing country. In the Uruguay round it was offered a deal it could not refuse, namely duty-free access for its textiles, and it bit the bullet. But now it insists on retaining its import restrictions on agricultural goods, on the grounds of food security. Defending the country’s interests is good fun, especially when it is done in a luxury resort. But the government is blind to the fact that its import restrictions are what prevent India from becoming a leading agricultural exporter. It has the surplus; all it needs now is to bring down costs. Domestic competition will do it, if only the government would let it.