MP puts basmati in a rice soup

Sandip Das Posted online: Tuesday, Jan 28, 2014 at 0000 hrs
New Delhi : The battle for geographical indications (GI) protection for basmati rice has taken a curious turn with Madhya Pradesh government, which is outside the Indo-Gangetic plain, throwing its hat in the ring, pitting itself against the ministries of agriculture and commerce. The Chennai-based GI Registry, in a directive issued on December 31, asked the Centre if MP could be included in the definition of traditionally basmati-growing geography, inviting strong reactions from the commerce ministry, which thinks the state’s claim is unjustified.

GI, a form of intellectual property right, is distinct from other forms of IPR as it ascribes the exclusivity to the community in a defined geography rather than to an individual as in the case of trademarks and patents.

When India began to provide GI protection a decade ago, communities within the boundaries of the Indo-Gangetic plain cultivating basmati rice were seen to be obvious beneficiaries. But the authority concerned — the GI Registry — could not grant the protection to this major farm export item, known for its aroma and long, slender grain, for long years primarily due to conflicting claims and consequent difficulty in defining the geographical area that presumably gave the rice its exclusive traits.

In 2009, the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) under the commerce ministry had applied to the GI Registry asking for exclusive (commercial) use of the basmati tag for the grain varieties grown within the boundaries of the Indo-Gagentic plain in Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Himachal Pradesh and 26 districts of western Uttar Pradesh and two districts of Jammu and Kashmir. Under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999, APEDA is designated to be the custodian of GI rights for farm produce.

“We will file our reply with the GI Registry opposing inclusion of Madhya Pradesh in basmati rice growing zone as we are the custodian of GI on behalf of farmers who would be hit hard by this approach,” APEDA chairman Asit Tripathy told FE. He said expanding the basmati growing regions artificially would adversely impact exclusivity and exportability of basmati rice.

A GI tag could further boost India’s basmati rice exports, which is expected to touch a record Rs 21,000 crore in 2013-14. It is also a fact that helped by corporate farming, basmati cultivation has increased manifold in Madhya Pradesh in the last five years, with production hitting 4 lakh tonnes in 2012-13.

Madhya Kshetra basmati Growers Association Samiti and a leading basmati rice exporter, LT Foods, along with Madhya Pradesh’s department of farmer welfare and agriculture development, had approached the GI Registry jointly.

Meanwhile, a group of agricultural scientists has also opposed Madhya Pradesh’s attempt to be included in basmati-growing regions, saying it would adversely impact the ‘quality’ of basmati rice and sully its global repute. “Claiming rice grown in Madhya Pradesh as basmati is not correct as we have developed seed varieties keeping in mind agro-climatic zones of the Indo-Gangetic plain,” said KV Prabhu, deputy director, Indian Agricultural Research Institute (IARI), and a well-known rice breeder.

Prabhu said the higher temperature prevailing in Madhya Pradesh compared with northern states impacts the aroma and grain quality, which is a key quality of basmati rice. During 2008-10, India and Pakistan had initiated steps to register basmati under GI as ‘joint heritage’ for protecting its premium market abroad. But that bid did not fructify due to opposition to it within Pakistan.

In the absence of GI, many private companies have been unsuccessfully trying to register their products as ‘basmati’, which commands a premium in the global market. The IARI has developed Pusa 1121 basmati rice variety, which is grown in more than 60% of basmati rice areas.

The products with a reputation attributable to its place of origin or the area where it is manufactured and have GI protection in India include Darjeeeling tea, Kancheepuram silk and Mysore agarbatti. More than 110 products have got GI registration in the country. GI protection needs to be taken first in the home country and subsequently in other countries (where it is exported to) and would come in useful in bolstering sales.