Need to be vigilant against farmers’ exploitation by large companies: Activists

Gujarat farmers' landmark win against PepsiCo over seeds

Business

December 9, 2021

/ By / New Delhi

Need to be vigilant against farmers’ exploitation by large companies: Activists

FC5 potato variant was put into commercial use in 2009 in India as per a report (MIG photos/ Aman Kanojiya)

Cancellation of a plant variety protection certificate granted to multinational giant PepsiCo marks a major, though rare, win for Indian farmers. However, experts say that farmers will increasingly face similar challenges as global agricultural and food behemoths set their sights on India’s farmers.

Last week, an intellectual property right given to foods giant, PepsiCo, was nullified by the Protection of Plants Varieties and Farmer’s Right Authority (PPVFRA). Using the Plant Variety Protection (PVP) certificate, Pepsi had demanded large amounts of compensation from farmers in Gujarat where the company had an agreement to sell the seed and buy back the produce at a pre-decided rate.

The case dates back to April 2019 when PepsiCo filed a lawsuit against some farmers in Gujarat, claiming that they were involved in violation of their terms with the company of growing the FC5 potato variant personally and seeking a sum of INR 10 million from each of the farmers sued.

The company had contracted the farmers in Gujarat and Punjab for producing a variant of potatoes, used in manufacturing chips for its brand, Lays, by using the seeds sold to them and selling the produce back to the company at pre-agreed rates.

The potato variant was put into commercial use in 2009 in India as per a report by Quartz, a business news publication. PepsiCo applied for registration of the potato variety in India in June 2011 and it was approved in 2016.

When the news of the company suing farmers spread, farmers in Gujarat began protesting against the company. Activist Kavitha Kuruganti launched a public campaign against the company in April 2019 on account of this frivolous lawsuit coming into light.

Under immense political pressure, though PepsiCo had withdrawn the cases against the farmers by May, Kuruganti, convener of the Alliance of Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), an NGO working with Indian farmers, went ahead in June and asked PPVFRA to revoke PepsiCo’s Plant Variety Protection (PVP) certificate given to PepsiCo. The certificate is offered to companies or individuals who have developed a new variety of plants or products to protect the stakeholders’ commercial interests.

Kuruganti’s case was built on four key points. One was that the certificate was granted on basis of incorrect information furnished by PepsiCo and that the company was not eligible for protection under this Act. She went on to say that the breeder, PepsiCo, had not complied with the provisions of the PPV&FR Act 2001 or rules or regulations and also that the grant of certificate of registration was not in the public interest.

The PPVFRA ruling agreed that the company was not complying with the provisions of the 2001 PPV&FR Act 2001 and that the grant of the certificate was based on incorrect information furnished by the applicant.

“The company withdrew the cases because of the public campaign. We felt that it is still not setting a legal precedent. We may not be aware of such cases filed by (PVP) certificate holders, because when we got to know, we raised a public campaign and within 45 days of us coming to know they had to withdraw. They also had Gujarat Assembly elections at that time, so several things fell into place and so they (PepsiCo) withdrew. We were also aware of the fact that the company had not done it for the first time in 2019. In 2018, also they had sued farmers and by the time we discovered them they were already spending personal money on lawyers, doing the rounds of courts and so on,” Kavitha Kuruganti tells Media India Group.

To set a legal precedent in order to curb the practice anywhere else in the country, Kuruganti says she filed the application for revocation within a few days of PepsiCo withdrawing the cases. “Legally, there was no infringement by any farmer, Pepsi was only intimidating and harassing farmers. In India, the law is very clear that even a registered variety can be grown as seed by the farmers and sold to others provided it is unbranded. The Section 39 of PPV&FR Act is very clear and Pepsi also knows about it but still said that farmers were infringing on its IPR and claimed damages,” she adds.

Kuruganti feels that she faced no challenge in getting the verdict but the case took 30 months to be resolved. “I faced no challenges other than the fact the authority takes 30 long months to decide on this and they finally gave a judgement when there are only two more months left for the certificate validity that Pepsi has. But if this was not revoked then Pepsi would have probably applied for an extension and would have got the extension for another eight years till 2030 so to that extent, we prevented the renewal of Pepsi’s PVP on FC file and we made sure that they don’t harass any farmers using PVP as an excuse,” she says.

Ruling welcomed, key to prevent new cases

The ruling has been welcomed by farm activists all over the country. Kiran Kumar Vissa, national group member, All India Kisan Sangharsh Coordination Committee, says he welcomes the ruling. “We welcome it, in fact, we have been fighting for it. It’s a very good step in the right direction as the authority has taken a clear position showing these companies what it can do and can’t do,” Vissa tells Media India Group.

The activists say that agribusiness companies use intimidation to scare the farmers into submission on practically everything they want and more so around harvest as that is the time when the farmers are most vulnerable. Such intimidation is just the beginning, they say. “What PepsiCo did was just the beginning as the general hope of agribusiness companies whether it is seed or other companies is that they can establish a monopolistic kind of hold over the agriculture sector,” says Vissa, highlighting the constant dangers for the farmers, mainly small and marginal farmers, who constitute over 90 pc of all farmers.

Kuruganti says that she is not aware whether what PepsiCo tried to do was a widespread practice in India as information is not easily available on what happens between large companies and small farmers in rural areas. “We don’t know how widespread this practice is. We accidentally came across one small newspaper report from Ahmedabad in an email and then in the discussion some of us including me were saying this is not possible because Indian law is very clear. The law was created by a lot of activists being involved at that time whether it was Suman Sahai or Vandana Shiva and others. So, we said this news article may not be true that the court has put a stay on farmers using the seeds. Pepsi had managed to already to get an interim order in its favour by the time we got to know about it. We got more details and then discovered that farmers were actually being harassed. The entire case was based on a sting operation by a detective agency that had been hired by PepsiCo to spy on farmers and that is when we launched a public campaign in 2019,” she says.

To prevent such cases from happening again, Kuruganti says she tried to suggest a few measures to the PPVFRA. “We had told them that to prevent any such cases in the future, the authority could add one condition in the certificate saying that it was subject to section 39 of the Act and also to send a letter to all the existing certificate holders that any violation of section 39 could lead to cancellation of the existing certificates. However, our suggestions did not evoke any response from the authority,” says Kuruganti.

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