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February 7, 2012 | by Els Torreele

This week, in a global week of action, health activists worldwide are out on the streets in an eleventh-hour effort to push back on EU pressure to lure India into trading away access to medicines. On February 10, a new and possible final round in the four-year negotiations on a Free Trade Agreement (FTA) between India and the EU is starting in Delhi. And the stakes are high. Last September, the EU threatened to break off the negotiations for lack of flexibility—read concessions—on the Indian side. And India wants the trade agreement as badly as the EU.

The EU-India FTA is expected to help India’s rapidly growing companies, in particular in the service industries, expand into the wealthy EU market, while Europe wants access to a vast, young, vibrant market of 1.3 billion potential customers. Looking at who’s going to be at the table next week, there’s no doubt the pressure to deliver is high: Herman Van Rompuy, President of the European Council, José Manuel Barroso, President of the European Commission, EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, and India’s Prime Minister Dr. Manmohan Singh.

While negotiators have allegedly reached a broad agreement on most issues, “last-mile” give and take still remains. And that is where the danger for unhealthy trade-offs lies, especially as the negotiations are largely shrouded in secrecy, a conduct for which the EU has been taken to court by transparency activists.

So what do we need to be afraid of?

The key issue is this: Europe is keen to include a variety of measures favoring the business interests of pharmaceutical companies at the expense of millions of people in developing countries whose lives depend on India’s supply of cheap generic medicines. And while the EU representatives keep repeating that this agreement will not hamper people’s access to medicines, the fragments of the negotiating text that have been leaked clearly indicate otherwise. I have previously described some of the potential threats of this FTA to access to medicines—in particular patent extensions and data exclusivity. As explained further in this video, the ultimate effect of these measures would be a delay in the availability of cheaper generics. In the case of lifesaving drugs, this means that many more people will die while waiting for affordable medicines.

In the past decade, India—often referred to as “the pharmacy of the developing world”—has played a pivotal role as the main producer and supplier of cheap generic drugs for HIV/AIDS and many other diseases, including cancer, diabetes, and asthma. In 2005, India was required to adapt its patent legislation to comply with the World Trade Organization’s TRIPS agreement that set minimal standards for intellectual property rights, including 20-year pharmaceutical patents. As a consequence, India’s capacity to continue producing low-cost generics, particularly for new and better treatments that are under patent, has been seriously curtailed. However, the Indian legislation still contains a number of public health safeguards, which health activists helped to secure, including a strict definition of the patentability criteria to forbid evergreening of patents (watch this fun video) and other provisions to facilitate the timely and widespread availability of generic medicines. And these are now under threat.

While India has so far resisted the EU’s request for more intellectual property protection and enforcement, it remains to be seen whether the world’s health interests will prevail over business interests once the secret horse-trading begins. Because this much is clear: recent statements from the European Commission reveal a vision on development policy that continues to emphasize serving European corporate interests ahead of combating poverty.

The EU is also proposing investment rules that would allow foreign companies to take the Indian government to court over domestic health policies, such as price regulation of medicines or other pro-health policies. We have already seen how such rules can lead to absurd situations, for instance when Philip Morris threatened to sue the Australian government over its plans to ban branded cigarette packaging to reduce the attractiveness of smoking.

And the EU is not the only governmental body negotiating trade agreements that could seriously hamper access to medicines for people in developing countries. The U.S. is currently pushing for similar intellectual property and investment rules in its negotiations for a Trans Pacific Partnership Agreement with eight Pacific countries including Malaysia, Vietnam, Chile, and Peru.

Meanwhile, as if in a concerted effort to weaken India’s pro-public health approach to pharmaceutical patents—even if it remains well within the boundaries set by the WTO— the pharmaceutical giant Novartis has taken the Indian government to court over its refusal to grant evergreening patents. The case has reached the Supreme Court, in which hearings are expected to start late February.

In the coming negotiations, it will be critical for India to stand strong against relentless pressures from the EU and U.S.—and the pharmaceutical giants—and remain committed to its laws protecting public health. We need to raise more voices of support to ensure the Indian government retains its prime role as generics supplier for the developing world. Sign on to this petition, join the campaign Facebook page, and get involved in protest actions all over the world.