Horizon blog: Could human rights rather than animal welfare be a sticking point in UK-India trade deal?

Thursday, 13 January 2022

Today (13 January), the International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan will meet the Indian minister of Commerce and Industry Piyush Goyal, in New Delhi to formally start talks on a Free Trade Agreement that the Government claims could create huge benefits for both countries. Our senior analyst Amandeep Kaur Purewal discusses the politics around any potential UK-India trade deal, the sticking points in terms of human rights and what opportunities might arise for UK farmers if an agreement is struck.

Negotiations between the UK and India for a free trade agreement (FTA) start today and we’ve published an article looking at the current state of affairs regarding agri-food trade between these two countries. Looking at the beef, sheep, pork, dairy and cereals sectors, there’s not much, if hardly any trade between the UK and India. India has high average tariff rates and large number of non-tariff measures and so the UK could potentially benefit on this front if an FTA is agreed.

For the UK, there’s certainly opportunities available, particularly in the dairy sector, where the market for value added dairy products, such as cheese, in India is increasing against a backdrop of a growing middle class and huge population. There are also opportunities for sheepmeat.

However, aside from market dynamics there are other issues to consider.

Sanitary and Phytosanitary standards (SPS) standards are complex and challenging for agri-food firms wishing to export to India. The FTA will seek to enhance access for agri-food by increasing transparency of SPS standards in order to help UK firms trade more easily. 

Usually in trade deal negotiations, animal welfare standards are highlighted and brought to the fore, especially if there is a high likelihood of increased meat imports into the UK. This is not the case for a potential UK-India FTA, but human rights and welfare are perhaps more fitting in this case.

In September 2020, the Indian government announced three agricultural bills which led to widespread protests from farmers. The bills were passed by ‘voice vote’ i.e. by who could be heard shouting the loudest, rather than a recorded vote. The Indian government saw the bills as providing more pricing freedom to farmers and enabling them to sell their produce directly to big buyers. Farmers saw the bills as a threat to their livelihoods, removing the infrastructure which enables them to get a fair price and playing into the hands of large multinationals.

Farmers from all over India camped out in the capital, New Delhi, in protest following the announcement of the measures. Violence and internet shutdowns by the authorities have been reported in the media and global personalities such as Greta Thunberg, Rihanna and Susan Sarandon expressed their solidarity with Indian farmers on social media. Organisations such as the Canadian National Farmers Union and US National Farmers Union also released statements in support of Indian farmers.

On 19 November 2021, the Indian Prime Minister, Narendra Modi, announced that the controversial farm bills would be repealed – a surprising u-turn. However, there is a deep level of distrust amongst farmers who are demanding to see this change in writing before they head back to their homes. The announcement to repeal the laws is more likely a political move given that state elections are coming up in the states of Punjab and Uttar Pradesh early next year where most of the farmers are from. 

From a UK perspective, the Trade Bill includes amendments on human rights and genocide whereby the government must conduct a risk assessment to determine if the trade agreement complies with the UK’s human rights obligations and produce annual reports to parliament to examine any alleged cases of violation. It will, therefore, be interesting to see the extent to which these protests and other questionable incidents will have a bearing on a potential trade deal.

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