IF DISRUPTIONS over phone tapping and the India Premier League controversy had not taken Parliament sessions hostage, the Rajya Sabha may have passed the controversial Seeds Bill in the week of April 26, when it was slated to come up for discussion.
The government was keen to give this Bill the force of law as soon as possible because the seed industry wants it. The Seeds Bill originally proposed in 2004 was met by resistance almost immediately. Just months after it was proposed, Gene Campaign organised a stakeholder consultation to critically analyse the Bill and suggest amendments. The pressure was kept up to have the Bill re-examined and it was referred to the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Agriculture in 2005. The Committee called for evidence and submissions from a number of agencies, including government departments, civil society groups and seed industries.
The Standing Committee accepted many of the amendments proposed by civil society groups and the amended draft Seeds Bill that was proposed to Parliament was vastly improved over the original. It made the playing field more level and while giving the seed industry a fair chance to profit from the seed trade, it incorporated safeguards for farmers. The Bill in that shape was however not accepted. Since then several other amendments have been proposed, some of which have been accepted in principle, others not.
So what is the Seeds Bill and is it needed? Many NGOs have been asking for the Bill to be scrapped. This is a dangerous proposition stemming from ignorance about what such a law is supposed to accomplish. The new Seeds Bill will replace the old Seed Act of 1966, which was meant to govern trading in seed. A law regulating the seed trade is necessary to ensure that farmers are protected against spurious seeds and that seed producers are obliged to put into the market only seeds of good and reliable quality. Such a seed law must encourage competitiveness to ensure good quality and low prices and not encourage monopolies.
Our seed law must ensure that the seeds produced by farming communities (Farmer Varieties) are treated at par with seeds produced by companies. The law must provide for a transparent system of seed testing and evaluation of performance so that the farmers get good quality seed and the nation’s goals of agricultural and food production are met in the most effective manner. So we do need a Seeds Act but we do not need this one.
The genesis of the current shape of the Seeds Bill is to be seen in the ire of the seed industry over the pro-farmer provisions of the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act (PPVFR), 2001. This IPR law that India enacted instead of accepting a patent law for seeds, gives intellectual property protection to the plant varieties of farmers as well as those of breeders. India is the only country in the world that has given legal rights to its farmers over seed, and the industry has been furious since. The seed industry wants monopolies over seed production and giving rights to farmers over their seeds spoils their plans. They retaliated by influencing the proposed Seeds Bill in a way that overrules the provisions of the PPVFR and Farmers Rights and had provisions written in that would allow seed sector monopolies with as little accountability as possible.
In the PPVFR, the breeder applies for registration for a Plant Breeders Right. This right is valid for a period of 15 years for crop varieties and 18 years for trees. The Seed Bill allows the period of protection to be doubled so that the seed varieties can be protected by the seed producer for 30 years and 36 years respectively. This extension of the seed owner’s right will allow monopolies to be established.
A KEY OBJECTION to the Seeds Bill is that despite several submissions for amendment, it still does not require the seed industry (plant breeders) to declare the parentage of the new seed that they have developed. This is bad science and bad ethics. Scientists always keep a record of the maternal and paternal parents of the new seed that they are developing. Resistance to submitting these records and keeping this provision out of the Bill means only one thing. The seed industry breeders will use the seed varieties developed by farmers and public sector scientists and pass this off as their own. This amounts to theft. The penalties for violation have been kept ridiculously low — Rs 5,000 — so that even if someone is caught stealing public sector material or that belonging to farmers, the punishment is a laughably small sum of money.
Of a piece with this is the refusal to accommodate a provision for pre-grant opposition. Law making in many parts of the world, including our own, particularly when rights are granted, as in IPR, allows an opportunity to the public to record its objections to the grant of such a right.
Many activists had wanted such a provision in the Seeds Bill as well so that if a seed company wanted to register a seed, which had used material from other, unauthorised sources, objections could be raised. But the government, anxious to please the seed industry refuses to include a provision for pre-grant opposition.
This Seeds Bill is distinctly anti-farmer and so against the interests of food security. It must be radically overhauled.
Dr Suman Sahai is a scientist trained in genetics. She heads Gene Campaign, a leading research and advocacy organisation