Praful Bidwai’s Perspective on Plant Varieties Protection
09 / 1997
The stakes of adequately managing and protecting India’s biodiversity are very high, considering that between 6.5 and 7 % of the plant and animal species recorded worldwide are found in the Indian subcontinent. As far as plant genetic resources go, at least 166 crop species are known to have their origins there, among which coconut, rice, sugarcane, bamboo, indigo, banana, eggplant, turmeric and cowpea. Much of the wild plant diversity remains unexplored, as in the case of medicinal plants, of which 7500 species have already been recorded.
One of the crucial issues lies in how to ensure that these plant resources remain within the public domain, to which they have always belonged. India is indeed pressed, like every country signatory to the World Trade Organization agreement on trade-related intellectual property rights, to adopt a legislation for the protection of plant varieties. The question faced by India today is : what type of plant varieties protection is India to elaborate so that these resources do not become the sole prerogative of private spheres of interest?
To Praful Bidwai, a well-known and esteemed journalist and critic of New Delhi, the Convention of Biological Diversity embodies a will to maintain genetic resources in the public domain, setting the ground for a recognition of sovereign rights of states and communities over these resources. The protection of farmers’ and tribal people’s rights begins with the recognition of their knowledge over herbs, trees or domesticated plants, which is explicitly done in the CBD.
On the contrary, the Union for the Protection of Plant Varieties (UPOV), a European version of trade-related intellectual property rights, first established in 1961, "puts a premium upon only one kind of knowledge - that of modern science". Praful Bidwai also argues that the UPOV model places plant genetic resources in the private domain by allowing seed varieties developed by seed companies or research institutions to become their property. Furthermore, under the revised version of 1991, the farmer has no right to regenerate the improved seed and sell it to other farmers. This amendment was brought about to put an end to trend that played against the interests of plant breeders in Europe : large farmers owning large chunks of land (up to a few hundreds hectares)multiplied the seeds bought the previous year and sold them for a profit while in regions of more fragmented holdings, the replacement rate reached 90 to 95%. To Praful Bidwai, while this new restriction may be suitable for the largely industrialised Western agricultures, it is unacceptable in the case of India, where over two-thirds of the workforce is land-dependent.
The Indian governement released in March 1997 the first draft of a Plant Variety Act which is close, in essence, to UPOV, since it prioritizes scientific research efforts over field-based empiric breeding methods practised by farmers. Praful Bidwai, like many other intellectuals, regrets the lack of commitment to farmers on the part of the government and of the Indian elite. He argues that if farmers’ rights are to be seriously addressed, a mechanism needs to be designed for their enactment. The rule of prior informed consent is a way of ensuring that the Indian state as well as communities have a say in the utilisation of genetic resources by plant breeders. Moreover, formally acknowledging the role of farmers as breeders is only the first step, which must give way to concrete measures of compensation to farmers when varieties emanating from their communities are used by breeders.
This piece underlines a critical issue in the managment of genetic resources. On the one hand, improved varieties are put under a formal regime of intellectual property rights, and on the other hand, farmers’ varieties are only protected through a very fluid notion of ’compensation’.
Personal study on biodiversity in India. A book is on the point to be published in India. For further information, please contact the author (see address)or Fph.