Why Madhya Pradesh’s basmati battle seems political

The expansion of GI definition of basmati rice-grown areas, by including MP, is likely to adversely impact India’s rice exports and could hit farmers’ incomes.

Why Madhya Pradesh’s basmati battle seems political
Madhya Pradesh's basmati battle seems political

After a prolonged ‘legal fight,’ the Geographical Indications (GI) certification for basmati rice was finally granted to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) in March 2018, following the rejection of Madhya Pradesh’s demand to include some of its districts within the GI-defined ‘traditional basmati rice’ grown areas.

However, the Madhya Pradesh government has refused to give up and has been relentless in its demand for the inclusion of 13 districts under GI certification for ‘traditional basmati rice’ grown areas, despite the GI registry ruling against it, and the recommendation of the expert committee appointed by the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR).

APEDA had filed the application to register ‘basmati’ as a GI in 2008. The body under the commerce ministry has included 77 districts in the Indo-Gangetic plains along the foothills of the Himalayas—covering Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Delhi, western Uttar Pradesh, Himachal Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir—where this premium rice can be ‘legally’ cultivated. The GI-defined area, at present, is spread across 18.5 lakh hectares involving around 25 lakh farmers.

Under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999, the GI registry in February 2016 gave the GI tag to APEDA as the sole custodian of Basmati rice grown in the Indo-Gangetic plains as per the directives issues by the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB). However, IPAB had asked the stakeholders from Madhya Pradesh to submit fresh documents for inclusion in the basmati-grown areas.

GI, a form of intellectual property right (IPR), 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 is in the case of trademarks and patents. A GI tag can be issued for agricultural, natural or manufactured goods that have a unique quality, reputation or other characteristics attributable to its geographical origin. For example, Darjeeling tea, Kanchipuram Silk, Mysore Silk, Hyderabadi haleem, Mizo chilli products, etc, sold with the GI tag have premium pricing.

In March 2018, the GI registry had rejected Madhya Pradesh’s claim and held that “none of the documents relied upon by Madhya Pradesh proved its claimed historical and commercial cultivation of basmati rice within the areas claimed by it.” In the absence of GI for basmati rice, many private companies had tried to register their products under the title, which commands a premium in the global market.

Rice exporters as well as APEDA have repeatedly stated that the current holders of the GI tag—the 77 districts across seven states—should not be expanded. Or else the GI granted to basmati rice would lose its goodwill and exclusive credentials. This would also provide a window for other countries, including Pakistan and China, to claim the GI benefits, and could eventually dent India’s domination (the country accounts for 85% of the total exports) in the basmati rice exports market.

Currently, 11 districts in Pakistan also grow basmati rice and export the item to Europe, thanks to an India-Pakistan agreement. Rice exporters fear that any move to expand the GI definition of basmati rice-growing areas would result in Pakistan expanding its area under the aromatic and long-grained rice.

“GI ownership of basmati rice is an understanding between the European Union and India-Pakistan, giving us an edge over the rest of the world. Any distortion in the well-defined and historically-established boundaries of the GI zone will damage the uniqueness and creditability of basmati,” says Vijay Setia, the president of the All India Rice Exporters Association (AIREA).

Madhya Pradesh, in its submission, had been demanding that 13 of its districts—Morena, Bhind, Sheopur, Gwalior, Datia, Shivpuri, Guna, Vidisha, Raisen, Sehore, Hoshangabad, Narsinghpur and Jabalpur—also be given the GI tag. That would help about 80,000 farmers to continue cultivating this paddy in around 2 lakh hectares, and selling it as basmati.

The commerce ministry officials acknowledge that all the basmati rice packs for exports contain information that the material “is grown in Himalayan foothills,” not from Madhya Pradesh. Besides claiming that the state lies in the Indo-Gangetic plains, the MP government had stated that it has suitable agro-climatic conditions (for growing basmati rice) similar to the traditional basmati-grown areas and has a history of growing basmati rice since the 1900s.

An expert committee set up by ICAR and chaired by BS Dhillon, the vice-chancellor of Punjab Agricultural University, Ludhiana, in a meeting on April 20, 2018, refused the inclusion of the Madhya Pradesh part of basmati rice-grown areas. The committee deliberated on the issue and came to the conclusion that “basmati rice is traditionally known to be cultivated in the foothills of the Himalayas in the Indo-Gangetic plains. The state of Madhya Pradesh does not form part of the same. Further, no areas in the state of Madhya Pradesh have been historically known for commercial cultivation of basmati rice by farmers.”

The committee also noted that “the evidences presented in the representation in favour of history of basmati cultivation in Madhya Pradesh pertain to germplasm maintained for academic purpose at government research stations in Madhya Pradesh and these are not evidence of commercial cultivation of basmati rice by the farmers.”

Madhya Pradesh has approached the Madras High Court on this issue, and the matter is slated to come up for hearing on July 9-10.

Meanwhile, in a surprising move, the agriculture ministry recently formed yet another committee consisting of agricultural scientists from outside the traditional basmati-growing states for considering Madhya Pradesh’s claim. This is the second such committee set up by ICAR within the last three months and this issue has assumed political significance, with the Madhya Pradesh assembly elections slated to be held by the end of the year.

The committee, chaired by RR Hanchinal, the former chairperson of the Protection of Plant Varieties & Farmers’ Rights Authority, and members that include agricultural scientists outside the basmati rice-grown areas, would be submitting its report before the Madras High Court takes up the matter next month.

The basmati rice exporters and farmers are keeping their fingers crossed as any alternations in the definition of basmati rice-grown areas would have serious implications on India’s rice exports and remuneration for the farmers.

By- SANDIP DAS, Senior consultant, ICRIER. Views are personal

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