New Delhi: Seeds occupy a peculiar position in agriculture. They are at the root of big policy making, scaled agricultural outputs, while also at the top of discourses on food security, livelihood and innovation. They may seem to strengthen the quality food policy, but are integral to farmers.
This four dimensional peculiarity among a host of variables is what best explains India’s struggle with one of the longest due pieces of legislation – the Seeds Bill 2004. The new draft of the Bill, which was made public by the Ministry of Agriculture on October 28, is the latest stretch in the new chapter to replace the Seeds Act, 1966.
In 2004, the bill was introduced for the first time by former Union Minister Sharad Pawar during the UPA regime. The Centre now hopes to re-introduce the new draft Bill in the upcoming Winter session of the Parliament with the aim to “provide for the regulating the quality of seeds for sale, import, export and to facilitate production and supply of seeds of quality”.
However, whether the Bill passes the floor test this time, while also favouring the farm and the farmer, is a dicey bargain with no certain answers.
In 2010, Sharad Pawar had met around 50 lawmakers at the Ministry of Agriculture to finalise an older version of the Bill after the inclusion of recommendations by the Standing Committee. In the meeting, the Minister had expressed his unwillingness to negotiate on not having price regulation for seeds.
This had upset states like Bihar, Gujarat, Maharashtra, Madhya Pradesh, Karnataka, Kerala and Andhra Pradesh, who voiced against the Bill in the House, seeking more powers to regulate seed trade and pricing.
“The original Bill in 2004 was in a very bad shape, and it even sought to criminalise farmers for continuing with their customary practices,” said Kavitha Kuruganti of the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA).
In 2006, as a mark of progress, the Standing Committee had sought the creation of a compensation machinery for farmers, within the scope of the Bill, in the event seeds fail; price regulation on sale of seeds; and raised penalties on offenses, among other recommendations to the Bill. This version of the Bill was introduced in the Rajya Sabha in 2010.
While both the UPA and NDA-1 governments failed to get the legislation in place during their tenure, the NDA-2 is trying to get this passed because of the “rapidly growing scale of the seed sector,” Kuruganti said.
According to the Indian Council of Food and Agriculture, between 2010 and 2015, Indian seed market grew at 20.59 per cent and reached Rs. 141.24 billion in 2015 on account of rapid adoption of Bt cotton hybrids, single cross corn hybrids and hybrid vegetables.
Marking this growth, the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) of the United Nations came up with the Voluntary Guide for National Seed Policy Formulation, which recommends countries to have both a seed policy and a seed law.
A Regressive Bill
The new draft Bill has already shown signs of similar trajectory as its former versions. Fresh criticism so far has come from members of the civil society who have argued that the Bill is regressive in nature.
Dr Avinash Kishore, research fellow at the International Food Policy Research Institute (IFPRI) told News18 that the draft Bill “reverses” the provisions in the 2004 Bill for clauses on self-certification or certification by accredited private agencies.
According to him, “agriculture in India is burdened by overregulation and the new Seed Bill is not going to reduce that problem”.
For instance, the Bill states that all seed varieties for sale need to be registered. “I hope that state and central governments will build capacities to speed up the process and reduce transaction costs. I am not sure that either will happen,” he said.
Kishore also opposed the provision on price regulation during “emergent situations” in the Bill. “It will create uncertainty for seed companies and ad hocism in the price policy,” he said, advising its advocates that it is “not a good idea”.
There are also other critiques like Kuruganti who advocate strongly against the compensation mechanism. She told News18 that the proposed change “resets” to the 2004 version of the Bill asking farmers to compete with industry using the Consumer Protection Act (CPA), 1986 for compensation.
“For the farmer, the redressal mechanism has to be simple, accessible and time bound. The primary onus has to be taken by the State, to get justice for farmers in case of seed quality failures. It cannot be left to individual farmers to fight it out as consumers in the market,” she said.
Here, Kishore raised his concerns on the process of proving the case for compensation as the CPA relies on paperwork that the farmer has to produce like seed purchase bill, crop failure proof, showing proof of seed quality failure etc.
“The new Bill or the old one had no provisions that will make seed packet traceable to the original manufacturer, etc. Even if traceability was ensured, it won’t be easy to attribute an episode of crop failure to poor quality of seeds,” he said.
From the point of view of the farmer, Dr Prakash Bakshi, former chairman of NABARD echoes a similar opinion on traceability. He considers the Bill as a “much required legislation” for the increasing number of small and marginal land holders in India.
“Marginal farmers depend on local vendors or nearby farmers on seeds. So, if the seeds, which comes from the produce of local farmer, is not right, the most bottom rung of Indian agriculture is cheated,” he said.
“We must not regulate something which we cannot supervise. Technology today permits us to do things. Enabling the traceability of seeds is the first step towards a sound supervision mechanism of strong legislation,” he added.
However, the new draft Bill is also “regressive” in the manner that it does not have the right definition of who is a farmer, Bakshi told News18. “The given definition is that a farmer is anyone who owns cultivable land. What has Seed Bill got anything to do with ownership of the land,” he asked.
Currently, the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001 (PPVFR Act) protects the intellectual property rights of plant breeders, while licensing of the sale of seeds is regulated by the Seeds Control Order, 1983 (under the Essential Commodities Act, 1955). The new draft Bill will replace both these legislations governing the seed market.
The Ministry has welcomed views or comments on the Bill by November 13.