Tech Leaders to Discuss Ecomm with WTO Chief
Pressure on Indian govt for inclusion of ecomm-related disciplines in WTO agenda
New Delhi: Top officials from at least 50 online retail and tech companies will come together to discuss India’s ecommerce industry when they meet World Trade Organization chief Roberto Azevêdo next week even as the government is yet to come out with a policy on this matter. The India heads of Amazon, Uber, Google and Microsoft, founders of Flipkart and Paytm, chiefs of TCS and Infosys and senior officials from Apple India and Airtel Payments Bank figure in the list of likely participants at a discussion on internet, technology and ecommerce organised by Sunil Bharti Mittal-headed International Chamber of Commerce in New Delhi on February 8. Azevêdo has been pushing for ecommerce-related disciplines to be included in the WTO agenda for the ministerial meeting in December. He maintains that ecommerce can play a pivotal role in raising living standards in developing countries. At present, there are eight ecommerce submissions in the WTO for discussion.
His visit takes place as India is under pressure, especially by the US, to open its ecommerce sector. The US wants to prohibit digital customs duties, enable cross-border data flows, promote a free and open internet and prevent localisation barriers. Outgoing US Trade Representative Michael Froman had asked India to open its ecommerce sector to foreign investment. Similarly, China has proposed cross-border ecommerce and transparency on ecommerce policies.
“Our policy has not evolved on ecommerce,” said an Indian commerce department official. The government is already in talks with ecommerce companies operating in the country.
Moreover, for the first time, the G-20 has sought the views of its members on ecommerce. More than 30 delegations, most of which are G-20 members, have as- ked to explore linkages between digital trade and economic development within the WTO grouping while addressing “digital protectionism.”
Experts fear this meeting could lay the ground for talks on ecommerce issues at the ministerial, for which India is not ready. “The government’s job is not to pander to special interest groups. We can’t allow our agenda to get hijacked by this indirect lobbying through industry,” said an expert on WTO matters.
Biswajit Dhar, a professor at Jawaharlal Nehru University, said these issues need serious consideration by the government in consultation with the industry.
“A balanced agenda needs to be developed taking into account the concerns of small traders. The government must flag outstanding issues of the Doha Round immediately so that they can be considered in the 11th ministerial conference later in the year,” he added.
Though India can benefit from ecommerce, the gains are limited to freer flows of data. “India’s gains from ecommerce negotiations are perceived to be enhancing exports of IT and ITeS to the EU. However, what India seeks to achieve on prohibitions on data transmission are unlik- ely,” said Abhijit Das, head of the Centre for WTO Studies at the Indian Institute of Foreign Trade in New Delhi. “EU is extremely unlikely to agree to any provision which requires it to permit unrestricted data flows. Ecommerce is not only trade over the internet but it has implications for industry and even access to medicines.”
These concerns could be flagged by the CEOs of software services companies TCS, Infosys, HCL Technologies and Tech Mahindra, which are said to be invited for the dialogue.
However, people familiar with the matter said India is unlikely to deliberate ecommerce at length because neither does it have a negotiating mandate to do so nor is the industry or government prepared enough to comment on the issue at the level of the WTO.
“India is not likely to discuss ecommerce because it has domestic issues to resolve. Indian ecommerce companies have problems with the foreign ones and there is dirty competition to grab market share. Indian firms fear that the foreign companies will drive them out because they have deep pockets,” said a New Delhi-based expert on trade matters.