India & RCEP: The end of low cost medications?

India & RCEP: The end of low cost medications?

India is the world’s largest provider of affordable medicine to developing countries. Given its ethical and economic implications, should India join a partnership agreement containing a provision as damaging as TRIPS Plus?

India’s pharmaceutical industry will be limited by the proposed TRIPS Plus clauses within the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) between ASEAN and their trading partners. These would make large production more complex causing medicine prices to go up and thus rendering them less accessible, especially for people living in developing countries.

The RCEP is a free trade agreement currently under negotiation which aims, to reduce the tariff barriers for goods and services, leading to an increase of trade liberalisation in the Asia-Pacific region. Some partner countries are proposing a TRIPS Plus agreement. This proposed section of the RCEP is a set of clauses demanding tougher restrictions and regulations on intellectual property rights, such as patents. India has always been opposed to restrictions which would be tougher than the initial Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS)agreement. These clauses will impede India’s production of generic medicine through stricter laws and regulations, thus increasing medicine prices. Amongst other accomplishments, the Indian pharmaceutical industry has managed to reduce the price of HIV medication, from 10,000$ per person per year to around 150$. Hurting this industry would thus be detrimental to people who need affordable medical care, such as people living in developing countries.

Recent leaks have uncovered that Japan and South Korea are demanding the RCEP come with TRIPS-Plus clauses – some of which are quite damaging. Amongst them the more critical ones concern for instance: stricter data exclusivity, border measures denying imports and exports of medicine to certain developing countries and a patent period which would extend the 20 year standard, set by the WTO. This patent extension would create long term monopolies on medicines. These clauses would make it harder for the Indian industry to produce large amounts of generic medicine and sell them at an affordable price to developing countries. It is therefore against India’s best interests to join the RCEP right now.

The argument of RCEP benefitting Indian economic growth is controversial due to the presence of China in the RCEP. Indeed, India’s participation in the RCEP would strengthen China’s economic control over the region by making the Indian market wide-open to cheap Chinese products, thus thwarting Indian businesses.  In addition, the TRIPS Plus provision, would damage India’s pharmaceutical industry, which is an important contributor to the Indian economy.  Furthermore, the role RCEP could play in increasing India’s international stature remains uncertain. Indeed, the agreement has prominent gaps in partnership principles which include, amongst others, the lack of human rights, labour and environmental safety regulations. For a country seeking international recognition like India, these absences constitute hindrances to effective partnership and international credibility.

The RCEP would curb India’s support to developing countries and tarnish their international reputation more than anything. The TRIPS Plus provision of the RCEP is a trap for India and other low-income countries of the region. Since the next round of negotiations in mid-July is in Hyderabad (India), the country should play a leading role in challenging Japan and South Korea on this particular issue. It should also aspire to inspire the less economically developed countries in this partnership, mainly ASEAN members, to leave this partnership and together create an agreement which is genuinely more comprehensive and fairer than the RCEP.

In 2015, 1.1 million people died because of HIV, most of them in developing countries. This situation would only get worse if India agreed to a TRIPS Plus provision. Thus, in order to protect human rights, the environment and most of all to save the lives of millions of people suffering from life threatening diseases in developing countries, India should leave the RCEP.

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