Agri Business

‘Basmati rice being reduced to a generic variety from an exclusive one’

Subramani Ra Mancombu Chennai | Updated on May 28, 2021

Experts seeks ‘protective discrimination’ for the fragrant crop, Punjab exporters want some varieties denotified

The Punjab Rice Exporters’ Association has demanded that Basmati varieties not grown and not having commercial value be discarded or denotified by the Centre but it may not be as easy as the association has made out.

The Centre has notified 34 varieties of the long grain aromatic rice. The Punjab Rice Exporters Association says this causes confusion among farmers and millers.

In particular, the association director Ashok Sethi, who sought the review of the list of Basmati seed varieties, said that the Centre could discuss the issue with exporters, agricultural scientists and expert besides the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (Apeda).

Vijay Setia, former president of All India Rice Exporters Association, said that farmers grow the rice variety from their commercial point of view, while exporters also approach it from their commercial point of view.

“There are some farmers who grow Basmati in small quantities for their own home use. Such growers should have the freedom to cultivate the variety they want,” said Setia, also the executive director of Chaman Lal Setia Exports, that sells basmati under Maharani brand.

GI tag

But trade analysts see a more serious issue evolving out of this, particularly on the heels of a 2018 ruling of the Chennai-based Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB) on Geographical Indications for Basmati.

Rejecting a plea from Madhya Kshetra Basmati Growers Association Samiti (MKBGAS) in a ruling made on March 15, 2018, the IPAB said it recognised traditional variety of Basmati as Geographical Indications within the growing area.

The MKBGAS represented Basmati rice growers from Madhya Pradesh and was seeking that the GI tag extended to them too.

According to S Chandrasekharan, author of “Basmati Rice: The Natural History and Geographical Indication”, in the case of Basmati rice’s reputation, a 360 degree view is essential and thus the fragrant variety had a collective, social and expressive reputation.

In his book, the author wonders if the new Basmati varieties have been released with the “status quo or changed quality”. “If Basmati rice today has more than 29 varieties, it contains and refers 29 varying qualities,” he says.

Newer varieties

Over the last 35 years, new varieties of Basmati have evolved and they could have changed the consumer’s perception on quality. “The consumer perception on quality has shifted from traditional Basmati to the evolved Basmati varieties,” argues Chandrasekharan.

Pointing out that the price of Basmati rice has increased from $800 a tonne in 1991 to only $860 now, he says this is because the focus has shifted from traditional to evolved Basmati varieties to meet the demand by ramping up yield.

“Otherwise, there is no reason why there should be only $1.25 a tonne per year improvement in its prices till now,” Chandasekharan says.

One of the crucial aspects on which India got the Basmati patent of US firm RiceTec cancelled was the photoperiod sensitivity (PS), which is development responses of plants to relative lengths of light and dark periods.

Normally, traditional Basmati is sown in June and harvested in November with its growth based on climate and weather pattern.

But the new varieties of the fragrant rice are of 100-120 days duration that reduces the PS. “This is one way in which India could lose its exclusivity or even GI tag,” fears Chandrasekharan.

Stating that evolved varieties cannot be defined as Basmati under the definition of the 2008 Seed Act, Chandasekaran says that this was one of the reason why IPAB did not extend the GI tag for Basmati rice grown in Madhya Pradesh.

Basmati rice quality has a historical reputation but today it was moving on to gaining “generic reputation” than one with a GI tag. This could result in countries such as the US, Thailand and others countering that Indian Basmati does not have such a reputation.

“The Basmati rice could become a generic variety than an exclusive GI tagged one,” warns the author.

But Vijay Setia disagrees with such arguments. He says that the new varieties carry the traits of the traditional varieties. “These varieties are examined for their traits and properties before they are approved as Basmati rice,” he contends.

Improved varieties are being developed to improve farmers income and there is nothing to worry over the evolving of new varieties, he adds.

But Chandrasekharan says that in the past decade, an unknown process had been initiated to naturalise evolved Basmati rice varieties. “If corrective measures are not undertaken in the form of protective discrimination in Basmati rice, its protection will become meaningless,” he argues.

For India, Basmati rice is crucial as about 4.5 lakh tonnes are exported annually fetching about ₹30,000 crore in precious foreign exchange.

Published on May 27, 2021

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