Farmers in distress

  • 14/08/1998

WHILE delivering his budget speech in Parliament, the union finance minister, Yashwant Sinha, went on to state, "The rural economy is central to India's economic and social development-there is no reason why our farmers should not reap the benefits of access to the wider global market." It was, therefore, surprising that his colleague, the agriculture minister, should hold views that run contrary to the above understanding. The recently finalised draft of the Plant Varieties Protection Bill, by any reckoning crucial to the well-being of the Indian farmer, seeks for the first time to introduce protection of intellectual property in the agricultural sector, but is strangely silent with regard to intellectual property rights for farmers. Those who stand to benefit, if the bill goes through in its present form, are the commercial plant breeders. They would virtually come to rule the market- both global and local.

In front of the international community India has for long presented itself as an ardent protagonist of fanners' rights - that is, the rights arising from the contributions of farmers to conserving, improving and nurturing plant genetic resources. But there is no inkling of this in the draft PVP Bill, illustrating the point that the government's promise to lean in favour of farmers was perhaps never meant to be kept.

The present draft backtracks on its predecessor text of 1994, which contained elaborate provisions for farmer's rights. It said that the law would strive to "balance the need for stimulation and incentives to research and development (in the corporate sector) with the welfare of farmers". The rights that the previous draft proposed for the farmers were presented in the form of an incentive mechanism. So the recognition of the contributions made by rural communities was to come is "rewards or compensations". They were to be granted the rights to "secure full benefits and support in continuation in recognition of their contribution."

The new draft offers no such rights. It only offers sops. Under it, for instance, farmers will retain their traditional rights to save, exchange and share their farm produce. These are different from the rights of farmers because they are not being given any reward, benefit or compensation for their contribution. They are merely being allowed to use what they would be handed out by the seed companies. They are entitled to get nothing else.

The PVP legislation has been hanging fire since 1993. The Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) chapter of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) makes it obligatory for all member countries like India, to protect new crop varieties by providing Plant Breeders' Rights (PBRS) to innovators. These rights are part of an intellectual property rights regime established by the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants or the UPOV Convention, a treaty endorsed by the industrialised block of countries. The developing nations have never looked at PBRS as a useful option for the simple reason that in the tropics 80 per cent of the seeds used by farmers are saved from their own fields or freely exchanged with neighbours. However, TRIPS offers the members with another option. It says that each country can come up with a sui generis system, that is, a regime which takes care of the specific conditions prevailing in that nation.

So the Indian government, when it first set about drafting the plant varieties protection law five years ago, requested a UN agency, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), to study the implications of introducing a plant variety rights system in India. This was done because the agricultural sector in India comprises farming communities and depends heavily on their traditional practices. How would these communities fare in a regime that only recognises the contributions made by commercial plant breeders? The study said India should adopt the broad contours of the UPOV while drawing up its legislation brit accepted that the UPOV was not entirely appropriate for India as it was not formulated with the specific needs of developing countries in mind.

In the last five years governments of different hues in India have grappled in vain with the task of hammering out a comprehensive legislation which could balance the needs and demands of the corporate sector and the farming community. A rapidly growing farmer lobby clamouring for the recognition of farmers as the main players in the impending intellectual property rights regime has also by now come into being, and there has been a mushrooming of spokespersons of non-governmental organisations posing as champions of the poor Indian farmer in the international fora.

The previous draft with its pro-farmer leaning had raised hopes that the so called spokespersons of Indian farmer had succeeded in making their voices heard in Krishi Bhavan. But the new draft awaiting introduction in parliament proves that the government has been lured by industry to soften its stand. The sops proposed in the draft are exactly the ones that the UPOV spells out in its draft. So the government did not consider opting for the sui generis regime, where a better deal could have been worked out for the farmer.

Indian farmers now are in need of new spokespersons who are more firm in their convictions and who can convince the government that India needs a law which will actually help improve the lot of the Indian farming community.

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