The illegal sales of herbicide-tolerant cotton seeds smacks of an organised racket by a few companies operating below the radar, or in connivance with some powers—making a mockery of the regulatory system.
Prime minister Narendra Modi has expressed his intense desire to make India a hub of innovations at several forums, be it his address to young CEOs as champions of change in India or his address during his recent visit to Israel. His most famous quote on innovations is “Innovation is life. When there is no innovation, there is stagnation.” In this context, the NDA government even announced the setting up of the Atal Innovation Mission, via the budget speech of finance minister on February 28, 2015. But the progress so far has been tardy.
This is not the first time that India has dreamt to be an innovation hub. The importance of innovation was also recognised by the Manmohan Singh government when it constituted the National Innovation Council (NIC) in 2010 under Sam Pitroda, then advisor to prime minister on innovations. The key mandate of NIC was to formulate a roadmap for innovations for 2010 to 2020. The NIC submitted three annual reports to the government; the last one was in 2013. Sectoral innovation councils were set up in 25 major departments of Union government, including the ministry of agriculture.
At the state level also, State Innovation Councils were set up so that the idea of innovation becomes mainstream in the functioning of both Union and the state governments. However, it soon became evident that despite the best intentions of the government to decentralise innovation, and to make it a part of governance structure of ministries at the Centre and the states, innovative ideas that could be scaled up nationally were hardly emerging. It also showed that government organisations are not suited to bring about game-changing innovations as they are mired in routine work. The work of NIC proved that innovations work best in a supporting environment, irrespective of size or nature of organisation. The most important support which could be provided by the government was the protection of innovation itself!
So, for the NDA government, the first lesson to learn for its dream of making India an innovation hub would be “create an enabling environment to safeguard intellectual property of individuals, private and public companies that develop new products and ideas through their own investment”.
India ranks 60th in a list of 127 countries on the Global Innovation Index (GII) of 2017, an index prepared by Cornell University, INSEAD and World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO). Switzerland tops the list followed by Sweden, the Netherlands, the US and the UK. Singapore ranks 7th, Japan 14th, Israel 17th, and China 22nd.
In the Forbes list of 10 most innovative companies in the world, six are from the US. Interestingly, in the recently-released International Intellectual Property (IP) Index 2017 that ranks 45 countries, India ranks 43rd. It is this poor record on IP protection that is holding India back. Here, we focus on innovations in agriculture, as the challenge to feed 1.3 billion people cannot be met without innovations all along the agri-value-chain.
Take the latest case of Herbicide Tolerant (HT) Bt cotton, which is being talked about in the media and policy circles today. It is now widely known that one of the biggest innovations in Indian agriculture in the last 15 years was introduction of Bt cotton in 2002, a policy decision taken by the Atal Bihari Vajpayee government. That made India one of the top producers and the second-largest exporter of cotton. Mahyco Monsanto Biotech (MMB), which released the Bt cotton through its 40-odd licencees, also wanted to release HT Bt cotton and applied for approval to the Genetic Engineering Approval Committee (GEAC). HT cotton in an innovation in Bt cotton as it takes care of the weeds problem at a much lower cost than the labour farmers have to engage for weeding.
But before MMB could be granted permission for HT cotton, some unscrupulous elements pirated HT cotton, probably from countries (like the US, Australia, etc) that had already released it officially. These pirated HT cotton seeds were bred here, and this kharif season, several companies sold an estimated 35-45 lakh packets of HT Bt cotton seeds, illegally, covering about 7-10% of the cotton area. Looking at this blatant violation of the regulatory system by these pirating companies, MMB withdrew its application in 2016.
Interestingly, MMB had written to GEAC and concerned ministries and state governments way back in 2008 about such illegal activities, even giving the details of the plots where it was being multiplied. But the government of the day did not take rigorous action to stop this, and now, the scale of this illegal HT cotton seeds trade has become so large that it poses a major challenge for the current government.
However, it is noteworthy to see that farmers’ appetite to get better technologies and even pay premium price ranging from Rs 1,100-1,500 per packet, despite a legal price cap at Rs 800 per packet for Bt cotton. But this illegal sales of HT cotton seeds smacks of an ‘organised racket’ by a few companies operating below the radar, or in connivance with some powers, and making a mockery of the regulatory system under GEAC and ministry of environment, forests and climate change, as well as violating IPR.
How can India dream to be an innovation hub if such clandestine activities flourish and innovators suffer? Only stern and exemplary action by the prime minister can bring back the credibility of India’s regulatory institutions and put innovations on a safe and reliable path. Also, regulatory bodies need to clear the applications for innovative products (like GM mustard or Bt brinjal) quickly, lest they are introduced by pirates surreptitiously. Without these actions, making India an innovation hub will remain a pipe-dream for decades. Pirates can never be innovators!