A scramble for basmati GI rights
Bangladesh has staked a claim for inclusion in the proposed joint registration of basmati rice under the Geographical Indication law between Pakistan and India. It says basmati is a heritage of Bangladesh as well since it has been grown in the country for centuries.
The proposal, mooted by Pakistan, is addressed to India seeking joint steps to protect their centuries-old basmati heritage from greedy traders. In the absence of a joint geographical indication (GI) many private companies have been unsuccessfully trying to register their products as basmati. The proposal says that it is vital for the two countries to apply for joint registration of the basmati label as a GI in the international market. This would bar other countries from growing or exporting rice under the basmati brand. At present, India and Pakistan are embroiled in various disputes over ownership of the unique rice variety but are likely to resolve them soon under the changed circumstances.
Islamabad is strongly opposed to countries other than India and Pakistan growing or exporting rice under the basmati label. In May this year, Pakistan’s Commerce Secretary had said that “basmati is a common heritage of Pakistan and India and we should adopt a joint strategy for the registration of basmati rice in the international market.” Although being far away from the basmati-producing belt in the subcontinent, rice exporters of Bangladesh say that now is the right time to begin talks with Indian and Pakistani governments to include their country as a registered nation.
In April this year, according to Oryza, a rice trade website, the Philippines surprised officials in Pakistan and India by announcing that it has begun field trials for growing basmati next year meant for exports to the Middle East. This means defiance of the existing Intellectual Property Rights (IPRs) of the WTO under which production and export of basmati rice cannot take place outside the designated areas of Punjab that spreads across Pakistan and India. The Manila officials argue that If India and Pakistan can get the benefits of high yielding IRRI varieties developed by the IRRI institute in the Philippines, then why can’t the Philippines grow basmati?
Officials of the two countries are worried that the basmati brand may get diluted by the Philippines move. Pakistan’s Rice Exporters Association and Basmati Growers Association say they will not allow the Philippines to go ahead with its plan. Basmati is one of the oldest and finest varieties of rice cultivated in the subcontinent. Great Punjabi poet Waris Shah also mentioned basmati in his poetry while writing about Heer and Ranjha. It carries a premium price over other rice varieties in the international market.
Pakistan’s proposal is not new. India and Pakistan had applied for GI protection for basmati rice in 1997 after the US Patent Office issued patents to a Texas-based company Rice-Tech for three new strains of rice, allowing them to be sold under the basmati name. Rice-tech had tried to use names similar to basmati earlier in Europe too. India filed a request with the US Patent and Trademark Office to reconsider its decision in April 2000. A year later, the patent office informed Rice-Tech that only three of the 20 claims pertaining to three specific rice plants that are not cultivated in India could be allowed, thus suggesting that the basmati battle was at least partly won by India.
In 2008, India and Pakistan again decided to seek a joint GI for basmati globally. But the talks came to a halt soon after relations between them worsened in the wake of terrorist attacks on Mumbai on November 26, 2008. Later, Indian parliament passed a law that gave the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) the power to fight for protection of basmati name internationally with or without Pakistan.
Reacting sharply, Pakistan granted a trademark to the Basmati Growers Association (BGA) of the country, investing it with exclusive ownership of basmati.
However, the rice exporters body called REAP and India’s APEDA filed an appeal against the decision in the Sindh High Court. Meanwhile,
the APEDA also filed an application for the registration of Basmati in India with the Geographical Indications Registry in Chennai. Pakistan, it is surprising to note, has yet to enact a geographical indication law. It is because of this deficiency that basmati is being awarded a trademark which is awarded to a distinctive sign, name, symbol, or a device identifying a product.
In 2008 India changed the definition of the basmati rice. Its agriculture ministry removed the bar of having one of the two parents from among the traditional basmati varieties, thereby, paving the way for inclusion of evolved basmati varieties too.
The revised definition enabled India to develop new varieties to capture more basmati rice markets. It comes in the backdrop of a cold war over basmati which had taken a new turn with the Rice Exporters’ Association of Pakistan sending a legal notice to India’s commerce and industry ministry for notifying ‘super basmati’.
Although New Delhi replied to the notice contesting Islamabad’s allegation that India is usurping its basmati variety, the fact remains that basmati is part of the common heritage of the two countries. A respectable way out of the imbroglio is possible only when Islamabad enacts a geographical indication law; its draft is lying with the law ministry.
Pakistan claims that the ‘Super Basmati’ is an indigenous variety belonging to the country. Although India traditionally exports the Pusa variety and some other varieties of basmati, it also claims that it has developed the ‘Super Basmati’ variety in its labs as well. This led to a dispute between the two countries particularly when India got it registered as geographical indication after talks over the issue with Pakistan failed. Super Basmati is more popular than Pusa in the EU. This angered Pakistan.
However, the bitterness between the two countries has now begun to subside after a breakthrough in trade talks. This followed Pakistan’s historic decision to extend the Most Favoured Nation (MFN) status to India which is to be granted by the end of this month. Further liberalisation in trade and normalisation in relations will create an environment for fresh efforts to jointly seek registration of geographical indication for basmati.—Ashfak Bokhari