Though Indian agriculture mostly fetches all the wrong headlines, there exists one legislation, which preserves farmer’s rights in the age of commercial and property rights and is a source for accolades and pride all over the world. India’s one single legislation, Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act, 2001 makes sure to address the issues of food security, biodiversity, farmer’s access to seeds while focusing on the research and development in the sector. However, the draft Seed Bill, 2019, is in conflict with the Act, which is celebrated all over the world and acts as a model law to preserve farmer’s rights and biodiversity.

Looking back into history shows India had to make legislation for the security of the farmers while making sure private research and development helped Indian agriculture to prosper. India faced economic turbulence during the late 1980s and early 1990s, and the then government decided to join the World Trade Organisation in 1995. As a member-country India was bound to be a signatory of the Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights. Apart from ensuring the protection of property rights for new inventions and technology, Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights also made it obligatory to put property rights on plant and plant genetics, which was something India did not have before and under India’s Patent Act, 1970, patenting of plants and plant genetics was prohibited.

But India was not the only country with such a crisis, as many other countries, especially in Asia, South America and Africa faced the same problem. As a solution to the problem of the industrialised world, Trade-Related Intellectual Property Rights allowed the countries to have a sue generis (of its own kind) legislation, according to which, countries could develop legislation as per their requirement whilst protecting the IPRs.

This was the moment when India took the lead and became one of the first countries to develop a sue generis legislation to preserve and protect the way farmers have been practising agriculture in the country since time immemorial. This is one of the few legislations in the entire world which mentions the word “farmers rights” in the legislation itself.

While commenting about the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act, MS Swaminathan, who is considered the father of Indian Green Revolution, stated that India’s law is unique since it was the first time anywhere in the world that the rights of both breeders and farmers received integrated attention.

India is lauded and has been mentioned at the United Nations and at the Food and Agriculture Organisation meetings for how it upholds farmers rights on the seed system. Olivier de Schutter, the ex-UN Special Rapporteur on the Right to Food, quoted India’s legislation as “ an act of resistance to deepening proprietary claims in plant genetic resources”.

By farmer’s right, the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act suggests, “farmers freedom to produce, sell, store, save, reproduce, exchange and reuse seeds freely”, which takes its inspiration from the UN’s right to food. This single legislation was also aimed to conserve the huge biodiversity that India is blessed with by giving the farmer’s liberty to sow and exchange seeds of their own choice without market legislations.

What the draft bill means

The draft Seed Bill, 2019 which would certify and regulate the seed industry by not allowing any producer to sell seeds without certification and registration, is a huge encouragement for the farmers like Manish, who runs a 24-acres commercial farm in Fatehabad, Haryana (neighbouring state of Delhi, which is India’s capital). Manish does not save or reuse seeds and buy seeds before every cropping season.

According to Manish, this bill gives him assurance that the quality of seed will not be objectionable and he gets quality produce to sell to the industry. While this bill, on one hand, encourages the industries to hold quality and performance, and hence serve the agricultural community of the country, on the other hand, it is a huge blow to the diversity of the indigenous seed varieties.

Sanjay Patil, who has been associated as a thematic programme executive with non-governmental organisation BAIF Development Research Foundation in Pune, mentions that “community farming is mostly about oral traditions and not legislations”.

“In these communities (local farming communities), seeds are exchanged without any certifications and legislations since centuries,” he said. “Such legislations that industrialise the seed market will harm these farmers and their relationship with the seeds.” Patil and his organisation have been consistently locating, saving and conserving the indigenous seeds over years.

The current seed market is dominated by a few major private entities and the participation and contribution of these players are increasing. However, there exist multiple players like the local breeders, farmers, public and private companies and over 70% of the seed trade in India is still done by the informal sector.

Millions of people are involved in farming across India. Photo credit: AFP

The policy and outreach director at the National Seed Association of India, Indra Singh, is wary of these changes and maintains that quality seed is one of the most important factors for the substance and development of the country.

The NSAI is an association of the seed industries in India. According to Singh, “ The draft bill by propagating compulsory registration of seed varieties takes shape like the EU’s seed legislation, which follows evaluation and licensing of seed producers and processors, which will benefit both the farmers and the industries.”

He believes that the lack of registrations of Indian seed varieties has resulted in a loss to Indian farmers and the registration might be used as a guarantee that the seed varieties will not be exploited by other agents.

La via Campesina, is an international farmer organisation which focuses on peasants and farmers’ rights, has noted that under the veil of new seed regulations to ensure seed quality, certifications, prevention of counterfeit seeds, rules for phytosanitary measures and market transparency, property rights legislations are increasingly being adopted by countries all over the world.

These legislations indirectly limit the freedom of farmers to have their ownership over the seeds.

Farmers could lose control over seeds

KV Prabhu, the chairperson and commissioner of the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act, mentions that since the legislations are still in draft version, finding the points of contentions is not yet possible. However, contradictory and overlapping legislation might take away farmer’s rights on the seeds even as the same are endured under the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act.

Though this draft has considered the standards of seeds and has treated seed as a scientific and legal object, it completely ignores the ecological, social and cultural aspect of it, which are fairly recognised under the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act by segregating farmers’ varieties from others and giving farmers extra support. The bill is also mute on the questions of synthetic seeds and genetically modified crops.

There exist provisions for price control in the event of an emergency, the farmers have to move to the existing consumer’s court to get justice in case their seeds do not perform in the same manner. The process of registration or redress is not very farmer-friendly in absence of any special court or support. The draft bill also allows private and public facilities for the evaluation of seeds, which previously was only possible at the state level and central government institutions. The bill is criticised to be pro-industry and farmers’ interests remain a huge question mark.

While the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act gave farmers the freedom to manage the seeds and, by preserving the farmers’ rights over the industrialised and commercial seeds, the draft Seed Bill, 2019 can undo the same by implementing the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants characteristics, which promotes distinctness, uniformity and stability. The farmers’ varieties (of seeds) are in nature different from the commercial seeds and do not respond to the same logic of minimum germination, uniformity and stability and hence exposes the farmers to unfair competition with no level playing field.

This article first appeared on Mongabay.