| Nothing tastes as good as Indian mango
Washington, Dec. 11: Between negotiating tricky nuclear deals and now handling the busy portfolio of external affairs, Prime Minister Manmohan Singh has found time for some innovative economic diplomacy, which he still considers his area of special interest.
Thanks to Singh’s perseverance in economic content at summit meetings, Americans may soon taste Indian mangoes in their grocery stores and supermarkets.
Indian mangoes have been banned from America’s lucrative fruit markets because the US authorities are worried about the risk of pests in the “king of fruits”.
For 17 long years, India has been struggling to overcome this handicap, but never got anywhere with the Washington establishment through its pleas for corrective action.
But last month, thanks to a ministerial mechanism put in place by Singh during his meeting with President George W. Bush at the White House on July 18, the Americans have agreed at the cabinet level to deal with this problem.
The process that is at the root of this problem is known here as “sanitary and phyto-sanitary clearance”. It looks at what pests infest the mango crop in India and the way mango-growers deal with the problem.
Because Indian mangoes are banned in the US, the lucrative market has been captured mostly by Mexico, but consumers, especially Asians familiar with mangoes from their continent, complain that the fruit available here now does not much taste like mangoes.
The institutional mechanism that will now deal with the problem is the “US-India Trade Policy Forum”, a group headed by India’s commerce minister and the US Trade Representative (USTR), which was set up at the summit here between Singh and Bush.
Indian negotiators took up the ban on mangoes at the first meeting of the Trade Policy Forum in New Delhi last month and the USTR, Rob Portman, agreed to look into the matter.
In the absence a mechanism like the trade policy forum, Indian negotiators have hitherto been taking up the issue at lower levels: but with the involvement of a member of the Bush cabinet, it is now expected that India’s grievance will be heard and addressed.
In seeking to sort out the mango issue with the Americans, Singh is taking a leaf out of his own book.
In December 1994, during a landmark visit to Saudi Arabia as finance minister in P.V. Narasimha Rao’s government, Singh took up a similar issue with the Arab kingdom.
Saudi Arabia is a huge market for lamb, but for years, the Saudis barred entry to Indian meat and meat products, leaving the lucrative business to the Australians and New Zealanders.
Australian and New Zealand lamb, with their high fat content, were not popular among Saudi consumers, especially the vast Asian population in the kingdom.
Part of the reason why the Saudis banned Indian meat was lobbying by importers of lamb from other countries, which feared a loss of business if India came into the market.
In the case of the US, there is another practical reason why the Americans are likely to sit up and take note of India’s long-standing complaint about not letting its mangoes into the US.
With import duties in India being lowered, the Americans are discovering that their apples have a good market in India.
But the Indian authorities have stood in the way of American apples, arguing that the practice here of waxing apples raises questions about their edibility.
Similarly, almonds from America are growing in popularity in India and there is a nascent trade of $100 million a year in almond exports to India from here.
Indian authorities have raised objections to that trade too, arguing that the American practice of fumigating almonds with phosphene methyl bromide is unhealthy.
The Americans have an interest in resolving the dispute over their apples and almonds. In the process of getting over that dispute, the hurdles over exporting Indian mangoes to the US may also be soon overcome.