Quality seeds are India’s lifeline. Farming, food and the livelihood of over 60 per cent of the Indian population depend on them. A failed harvest has the potential to curtail our GDP and force millions of Indians into poverty and hunger until the next harvest. Overall, India depends on seeds to sustain life.

The government is currently in the process of bringing a new Seed Bill in the winter session of parliament, which aims to ensure that farmers get the highest quality seeds, while the seed industry also experiences an ‘ease-of-doing-business’. It aims to foster competition by updating the Seed Act 1966 and Seed Rules 1968.

Seed Act 1966

After the ‘Green Revolution’, India was quick to introduce the Seed Act 1966 as the first act to govern matters of seed and seed quality. It was modelled on the US legislation and aided by a later enactment of the Seed Rules 1968, which were also developed with the collaboration of the USDA. The Act has served well in making the Indian Seed Industry vibrant and competitive to serve the interest of the farmers.

The labelling of seeds with notified quality parameters has been made mandatory under the 1966 Act with punitive measures against seed sellers in case of any deficiency in seed quality parameters mentioned on the label. Essentially, the seed label is treated as a guarantee card and it is given a unique identification number to ensure traceability of seed. The major deficiencies in the 1966 Act are lack of licensing provisions and lack of varietal registration prior to sale, which is now being incorporated in the new Seed Bill.

There is no major difference in seed quality regulation between the new Bill and the old Act. The major difference is in the registration and licensing of seed producers and processors separately. Our current legislative framework was inspired by the US systems where the variety registration is left to the discretion of the developer, while the new bill looks towards Europe to be her lodestar and define parameters and procedures for the release of new varieties.

Some of the salient features resembling the EU in the new bill are compulsory registration of seed varieties based on VCU (value for cultivation and use) evaluation and licensing of seed producers and seed processors. There are also provisions for price control in the event of an emergency, monopolization or profiteering.

When the 1966 Act was passed, there was no Consumer (Protection) Act. Subsequently, over the years the farmers are included in the definition of consumers and the seed business got regulated for compensation under the Consumer (Protection) Act. Therefore, the government has not proposed any provisions for compensation and all compensation-related issues would be governed under the Consumer Protection Act like the present. This is a very progressive outlook by the government.

Farmers' interests

Our first suggestion is a tribute to Indian farmers. We hope the government retains all rights given to the farmers to save, sell, exchange all seeds and adopt the same rights and definition for the farmers as enshrined in the PPV&FR. We have already presented to the government a letter which adds 9 new definitions/words (like Central Licensing, minor offence, National Level Integrated Seed Company, etc)to bring operational clarity to the proposed legislation and also given comments on 5 additional definitions like agriculture, farmers, transgenic variety, etc to ensure our national interest is preserved. Although there are arguments to limit farmers’ rights, we shouldn’t allow provisions like in the UPOV to enter our new Seed Bill.

The next major challenge for the sector would come from the magnitude of crop registration as the new bill proposes compulsory registration of varieties/hybrids. Considering India has more than 100 crops, 5 geographical regions and hundreds of seed companies with R&D, the workload for nationwide evaluation as compared to the current workload will be more than 100 times greater and impossible to handle. It is therefore essential to recognize the nationwide evaluation facilities including those within the private sector.

Overseeing seed companies

Today, there are several companies that can aid the government in this process, as they too have a very strong variety breeding programme along with the capacity to carry out multi-location trials across the country. As such, many trails of ICAR are evaluated using such facilities even now. An empowered committee can be formed to evaluate the infrastructure facilities of the seed companies to accredit them and also to evaluate all the data generated from such nationwide trails to accord fast track registration. Such systems exist in countries like China. Further, the varietal evaluation systems of seed companies can be subject to regular audit by the technical auditors appointed by the Empowered Committee from time to time to ensure genuineness.

The current licensing is based on the provisions of the Seed (Control) Order, 1983 which was brought in to enable licensing as the 1966 Act lacked this provision. Unfortunately, the order does not differentiate between Seed Producer, Processor or Seed Dealer who only sells the packed seeds (finished product). In the proposed Bill, there is a differentiation between the Seed Producer, Processor and the Seed Dealer for the purpose of licensing. However, there is no recognition of National Level Integrated Seed Companies with R&D capabilities, national-level variety evaluation system, seed production, testing and storage facilities etc.

It is pertinent to note that there are several hundreds of seed producers who only obtain the breeder seeds of the varieties developed by ICAR system, IARI or SAUs whereas there are certain other companies who also have substantial facilities for research and development along with nationwide new variety evaluation system besides seed production, processing and testing infrastructure spread across several States. There is a need to recognize the scale and size of the operations of the companies and devise regulation accordingly. Therefore, this new provision is being proposed by NSAI. The national-level integrated seed companies may be registered centrally by the DACFW, MoAFW, Govt. of India and a central license may be given for production, processing and marketing of registered seed.

Price control

Also, we feel the government should continue with price control only as and when necessary, but suggest that this should be taken up by the Central government and DACFW. While addressing ‘ease-of-doing-business’ within the seed sector the government needs to discriminate between minor and major offences. The seed sector faces many issues like misbranding, damage to seed lot due to rain, weather, etc, contamination, etc some of them are intentional while others are not.

Many times, deterioration of seed quality is a biological process due to accelerated ageing when the seed lots are subject to very harsh conditions in summer before they are sown by the farmers. The government can set a framework based upon the intentionality and save the precious time of the courts. For the major offences due judicial process should be followed, but for minor offences, the seed inspectors should be empowered to compound the offence or initiate a fine as per the relevant rules. This will function in a similar manner to the powers of the inspector in the Motor vehicles act.

Duration of registration

In the end, we hope that the government keeps the duration of registration of a variety at 15 years (annual and biennial crops) and 18 years in case of perennial crops to make bring relief to the industry and farmers and all registration be harmonized with the provisions of PPVFR Act.

The Narendra Modi government has a chance to seed a unique and progressive Seed Bill or plagiarize from others. We are sure our government will not let us down in their decision, and ensure their seed bill will give plentiful harvests for Indian farmers and industry. Ultimately, the quality seed will be available to the farmers at competitive prices subject to a vibrant growth of the seed industry in an enabling environment. Healthy seed industry will lead to enhanced quality seed availability at affordable prices to the farmers.

(Singh is the programme director for National Seed Association of India and Rao is the president of the National Seed Association of India)

Twitter: @Indrassingh