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Basmati in jeopardy

The exclusion of Madhya Pradesh from the basmati cultivation register is of concern as it highlights the need to broaden the base for GI registry

Basmati in jeopardy
The Chennai-based Geographical Indications (GI) Registry's order in mid-March to exclude Madhya Pradesh from the area declared officially for cultivation of the aromatic and widely consumed basmati rice, both by the domestic users as also the overseas aficionados, has predictably raised a lot many questions and hackles than it has succeeded in productively explaining what constitutes popular perceptions in the usage of GI tags on a product that has more than geography in terms of aesthetics, aromatic standards, and consumer satisfaction!
No sooner did the order come that an exasperated rice mill owner in the state aired his resentment by stating that while BJP rules both in the Centre and the state, the interests of the state's basmati paddy growers were implacably ill-served. The ire is understandable because the petition against the inclusion of MP as a basmati-producing state came from the rice-miller exporters and farmer bodies in Punjab and Haryana along with two state governments backed by the export promotion agency of the Agricultural and Processed Foods Export Development Authority (APEDA), a statutory body under the Union Ministry of Commerce & Industry, even as the state government of MP challenged this plea in all its earnest efforts. For the BJP government in both the Centre and the state, the ruling has come at the worst moment when the pan-India party was battling against the burgeoning perception that it is anti-farmer and anti-rural in its bigger canvas for the vikas of the country!
"It is interesting to note why the APEDA is opposing the MP government's claim for a GI tag on its basmati. The fact remains that both the Central and state government are run by the same party," Anil Agarwal, director of a leading agro-industry in MP, was on the record. He claimed that MP produced around 11 lakh metric tonnes of basmati rice in the last financial year, even as officials claim that the production is just close to four lakh metric tonnes. But, even by conservative estimates, if production is four lakh metric tonnes, it would translate to a turnover of roughly Rs 1,100 crore.
Already, in the absence of the GI tag, MP farmers had been receiving lower prices for their basmati paddy at Rs 2,600-2,700 per quintal while in Haryana and Punjab, the same paddy is being sold at around Rs 3,200-3,300 per quintal. With this ruling against basmati rice production to qualify GI tags, sceptics wonder whether the state's iconic fruit such as orange, kalimuch rice of Balaghat and a host of other agricultural products would ever get the GI tags even though these products are relevant in the popular perception for their heritage association, tang, and tenor of the terroir in which they have been grown down the ages.
Even as the state government is urged to go and appeal before the Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB), which is the appellate body against the GI Registry, as soon as possible by marshalling proper evidence, the delay or denial to MP of its basmati tag will have an adverse impact on the agro-economy of the state and in the fortunes of farmers in 13 districts of the state, who grow and ply this premium rice. Interestingly, the same GI Registry favoured the state's claim in 2013, which was then opposed by the APEDA in IPAB. Oddly, today, the same GI Registry pronounced a ruling against the inclusion of the state under the plea of a clutch of mill-owners backed by the APEDA! This somersault among stakeholders and the regulators puzzle neutral observers and policy wonks instead of lending them any clarity on the issues raised and analysed.
Geographical Indications, as defined in the WTO Trade-Related Intellectual Properties Agreement (TRIPs), are identifications of the country or region where the quality, reputation or other characteristics of a product that are essentially attributable to the geographical region. Additional protection of GIs already exist for wines and spirits (e.g. Champagne, Bordeaux, and Cognac), and some countries (mainly Asia, Europe, and Africa) are calling for this protection to be extended to other products (e.g. Basmati rice, Darjeeling tea or Camembert cheese). Some believe that by adding value to biological resources, GIs can provide a fillip to preserve native varieties, the environment in which the respective resources are grown, and the traditional knowledge associated with them. Others, however, are concerned and chary that GIs will only bring new obligations for developing countries while the benefits will mainly go to developed countries that are better prepared at the national level to take the advantage of GI extensions and that might use GIs as a trade barrier against the developing countries' exports.
As this debate among the members of the WTO rages on interminably, it would be futile for the stakeholders within a country to oppose GI tags for their own specialty products purely accentuated by commercial considerations. This is particularly so when there are as many as 29 varieties of basmati rice being supplied to the global markets not only to non-resident Indians but also to the discriminating palates of gourmets and epicureans who consume the finest varieties of farm produce, including rice. One should reckon the fact that traditional basmati rice varieties are photo-sensitive and difficult to grow in other regions, whereas the evolved or improved basmati ones do not contain such features. Still, the Indian basmati rice of all hues is exported sans the GI tags as supply engenders its own demand in consonance with Say's law! There is no data on the traditional basmati rice variety cultivation in MP to scan whether the terroir theory fits in even as there was an established record that among the 13 districts a few did fall in the Indo-Gangetic Plains!
In a forthcoming well-researched book: 'The Basmati Grammar, a journey through geo-bio politics', trade policy analyst S Chandrasekaran said that the GI Registry's recent ruling should make the applicant and the other traditional growing area governments imbibe the implicit observations so as to build bulwarks preventing their heritage products from being challenged. He argued that new technology such as artificial intelligence and algorithm hold wider implications and ramifications for the future of traditional products. Further, he is of the view that Climate Change and the Indus Water Treaty play a key role in geopolitical strategies on basmati, intellectual property rights and Indo-Pak relations as the latter also claims ownership of basmati in the global forum.
As India and China boast of traditional medicines and herbal products, the onus lays with them to beef up their GI registration machinery with failure-proof systems and processes so that no challenge can be held against the heritage value of their hoary products. It is time that the indigenous GI Registry focussed on the many other great heritage products as it had only given GI tags to a few 300 odd products unlike the US and the Middle Kingdom which had given a few thousand GI tags to their own heritage goods.
(The views expressed are strictly personal)

G Srinivasan

G Srinivasan

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