Agri Business

GI tag for basmati: Apex court sets aside HC ruling dismissing MP Govt’s plea to include its regions

Subramani Ra Mancombu Chennai | Updated on September 06, 2021

Asks the High Court to reconsider the plea afresh

The Supreme Court has set aside a Madras High Court ruling dismissing a petition filed by the Madhya Pradesh government to provide a Geographical Indication (GI) tag for Basmati rice grown in 13 districts of the State.

While setting aside the High Court's February 27, 2020 ruling, the Supreme Court has asked it to reconsider the Madhya Pradesh government's plea.

"Without expressing any opinion on the merits of the issues involved (in) these matters, we set aside the judgment of the High Court February 27, 2020, and remand the matters back for fresh consideration by the High Court in accordance with law," said a bench comprising Justices L Nageswaran Rao, BR Gavai and BV Nagarathna on September 2.

Plea against APEDA

It has, however, not entertained the Madhya Pradesh government plea to cancel the GI certificate given to the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA) by the Chennai-based Intellectual Property Appellate Board (IPAB). IPAB gave the certificate to APEDA on February 15, 2016, as it is a statutory authority that can act as a registered proprietor of the GI certificate.

But the apex court bench said: "All questions are left open."

The Supreme Court judges said an interim order passed by the Madras High Court on February 17, 2016, and extended by the Supreme Court would be in operation till Madhya Pradesh government writ is disposed of by the High Court. The judges said they would "preferably" want the State's writ to be disposed of within three months.

2016 interim order

On February 17, 2016, the Madras High Court ordered APEDA against taking any "precipitative action" concerning basmati rice produced in Madhya Pradesh, especially the areas where it is claimed to be grown.

On February 27, 2020, the Madras High Court dismissed the Madhya Pradesh government petition for a GI tag for basmati rice grown in 13 districts, which meant that the fragrant rice was a special product specific to a particular region.

Then, too, the Madhya Pradesh government's main plea was to cancel the IPAB GI tag certificate granted to APEDA. A GI tag is given to products with a specific geographical origin and possesses special qualities due to the place from where it originates.

For example, the basmati rice cultivation is confined to a few regions and has unique characteristics such as fragrance and slim long grain. Also, Darjeeling tea has special features like flavour and colour, given its grown region.

'Vague, unscientific' demarcation

APEDA was given the certificate to authorise exporters and private traders to use the GI tag, provided the product meets all required norms.

Madhya Pradesh's grievance has been that its plea, made in April 2013, with IPAB and APEDA to include its basmati cultivation regions was ignored. Madhya Pradesh filed an application saying the demarcation of areas claiming to grow basmati by APEDA was "vague, overbroad, unscientific and contrary to requirements of the GI Act".

Its petition was upheld by the Assistant Registrar, GI, on December 31, 2013, because APEDA had failed to "satisfy the fundamental requirement of clear, specific and reasoned demarcation of actual basmati-cultivating areas".

APEDA was directed to identify the cultivated areas and refile the GI application within 60 days. APEDA appealed to IPAB, which held that the former was entitled to get the GI tag for basmati rice in respect of the areas and regions specified in the GI application made to the Assistant Registrar, who was directed to issue the certification of registration.

The IPAB, while setting aside the Madhya Pradesh claim, directed the Assistant Registrar to consider the State's plea afresh without being influenced by any observations made in its order.

Petition rejected

On March 15, 2018, the Assistant Registrar rejected the Madhya Pradesh petition for the Basmati GI tag to the 13 districts. The State of Madhya Pradesh challenged the registrar's order and the Madhya Kshetra Basmati Growers Association Samiti through two separate writ petitions filed that year. These writ petitions are still pending before the Madras High Court.

Madhya Pradesh contends that its rice farmers have been cultivating basmati for decades now in Gwalior, Morena, Bhind, Sheopur, Datia, Shivpuri, Guna, Vidisha, Raisen, Sehore, Hoshangabad, Jabalpur and Narsinghpur districts.

Since 1990, owing to increasing demand, the Madhya Pradesh Seed and Farm Development Corporation, a State enterprise, which also filed a petition in the High Court, has been distributing basmati paddy seeds to farmers in these regions.

On the other hand, the GI certificate that IPAB gave to APEDA determines that the whole of Punjab, Haryana, Uttarakhand, Jammu and Kashmir, Delhi, and Himachal Pradesh, besides 26 districts of Uttar Pradesh, are the regions cultivating basmati.

While contending that basmati rice grown in the State has all the required traits, Madhya Pradesh has challenged, mainly, APEDA's observation that the variety is "grown and produced in a specific region of the Indo-Gangetic plain below the foothills of Himalayas".

Claim not dismissed

Questioning APEDA's determination that basmati rice was grown only in five States, the Madhya Pradesh government argued that IPAB was wrong in determining traditional Basmati growing areas without any documentary proof.

The Madras High Court's ruling, per se, did not dismiss Madhya Pradesh's claim outright. The judges, in their order, said that two GI certificates cannot be given for the same product and pointed at two of Madhya Pradesh petitions, filed in 2018, pending with it against the GI registration.

The bench observed that the 2016 petition was of "academic" interest only when such petitions were pending. Thus, the High Court said the writ filed by the State government was "not maintainable".

The High Court bench, comprising Justices R Subbiah and C Saravanan, said they would prefer not to comment or deal further with the petition despite the pending petitions.

The bench, however, said the State government had not found any fault with either the GI certificate being given to APEDA or the regions specified for cultivating the rise. This, the court said, forced it to uphold the IPAB 2016 order.

However, the court said that the Madhya Pradesh government had an "alternative and efficacious remedy" available. It could file an application with the Registrar of Trademark seeking to cancel or vary the GI certificate to APEDA.

Madhya Pradesh could have moved the Registrar of Trademark for varying or cancelling the GI certificate, as suggested by the Madras High Court bench. Instead, it chose to challenge the ruling in the Supreme Court.

Published on September 06, 2021

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