The Indian government has refused to admit that it has hired the Brussels-based lobby firm Alber & Geiger to lobby for it in the India-European Union Free Trade Agreement (FTA) even as the firm itself lists its services to the Indian government and its triumphs in shaping and steering EU lawmakers to support the FTA deal.
On May 20, the Citizen’s Watch on FTAs, a group of foreign trade policy experts, rights activists for women and workers, transparency and human rights advocates, had filed three Right to Information applications seeking information on the name of every external agency which has been hired for the purpose of obtaining advice and support in relation to the free trade negotiations between India and other countries since April 2019, to date.
In a detailed note, the Citizen’s Watch group outlined the necessity for transparency in the ongoing dialogues between India and the EU. This, it said, is essential to understand the social impact on the country’s stakeholders, from farmers to fisherfolk.
As Venkatesh Nayak, who filed the RTI says, “Having found from Alber & Geiger’s website that they provided assistance to the Indian government to assuage concerns of members of the European Parliament (MEP) regarding the human rights situation in India in the ongoing FTA negotiations, we filed two RTI applications on this subject – one asking the Ministry of External Affairs if any external organisation was hired to help with the FTA negotiations, and the second, with the Indian Embassy in Brussels. The third RTI application came on the heels of the other two, and was submitted to the Union commerce ministry.”
So far, the Modi government has not revealed any information on the FTA discussions. The Citizen’s Watch has cited this as one of the reasons why it filed the RTI.
Information on the talks is vital to various stakeholders including millions of farmers, workers, artisans, fisherfolk, small business owners and workers, gig workers, home-based workers and others, says Nayak.
“Even as the European Commission (EC) is holding consultations and dialogues with civil society stakeholders in the EU member-states on the social impact assessment (SIA) of the proposed FTA with India,” says Nayak, “there’s a complete lack of transparency and non-inclusive consultation processes adopted by the Union Government here in the negotiations.”
And so, the first RTI application filed on May 15, 2023, asked not only for the names and address of any external agency if hired by MEA, it also asked for copies of all official records of the task being carried out and, the expenditure incurred in hiring any external agencies till date.
How did the MEA respond?
In its reply within two weeks, on May 29, the Ministry of External Affairs said it has not hired the services of any agency “for obtaining advice in relation to free trade negotiation between India and other countries.”
To the question on budgetary allotment for the hiring of an external agency, the MEA said “the request for information is transferred to Finance Division of MEA to directly convey it to the RTI applicant…The desired information is available in public domain on the official website of this Ministry.”
The Citizen’s Watch filed a second RTI on June 5, with the same queries, this time to the Indian Embassy to the EU in Brussels. But unlike the first time where the MEA actually responded promptly, the Central Public Information Officer (CPIO) who is the official authorised to respond, simply rejected the entire RTI application under Section 8(1) of the RTI Act.
According to this section, an RTI application can be rejected if the information asked relates to personal information and which has no relationship to any public activity or interest.
Says Nayak, “This is simply ridiculous, to say the least, because the 10 clauses which make up Section 8(1) contain more than 30 grounds for refusing access to information. To state that all of them will be attracted by the RTI queries is absurd.”
More so, says Nayak, if the MEA, the Embassy’s parent ministry can reply, there’s absolutely no reason why the latter cannot do it.
The Citizen’s Watch then filed a third RTI application also on June 5, with the commerce ministry, with the same questions put to the MEA and the Indian Embassy to the EU, asking “if any external agency was hired by the ministry for the purpose of obtaining advice and support in relation to the FTA negotiations between India and the EU till date.”
The RTI application also requested information on the detailed demand for grants (DDG) if any, from the ministry.
In its reply on June 14, the CPIO attached to the commerce ministry was categorical when he said that he has been directed to answer specifically on budgetary allocation, and that relevant information was available on the ministry’s website. Nayak says that while he is still to get down to locate the information on the ministry’s website, the RTI queries about hiring an external agency were transferred to another CPIO in the department. The 30-day deadline ends today.
As for the India-EU FTA talks, the EU website has been open to its own stakeholders and have made available substantive reports of the four rounds of negotiations already completed, and the textual proposals submitted to the India government, are all available on the EU site.
“Unfortunately, there is no official intimation here,” says Nayak, “we are expected to be satisfied with an occasional tweet on the progress of the negotiations and brief press notes from the Commerce Ministry or MEA.”