THE BITTER FEUD OVER RICE

India is the second largest producer of rice around the globe, and it has remarkable contribution to the national economy. Apart from being used in our staple diet, rice has immense importance in our culture as well so much so that it is even used in religious offerings. We have around 6000 varieties of rice growing in India and amongst them a special and important variety of rice is the Basmati Rice.

The word BASMATI has been derived from two Sanskrit words, Vas meaning aroma and Mati meaning ingrained. It is believed to have been grown in the Indian subcontinent for thousands of years. Basmati is often referred to as the Queen of Fragrance. The rice is different from others mainly due to its length, the aroma and its sweet taste that it adds to the meal, making it a delicacy. No other rice has these combined characteristics which makes it a product with great economic value and also a bone of contention between India and Pakistan.

Being an integral part of the culture, Basmati holds immense importance for both India and Pakistan. Thus, to have a larger claim on this variety, India and Pakistan are trying to get the Geographical Indication status on the Basmati produced in the respective countries. Let’s understand the matter in detail and see why GI registration is important for a nation.

The tug of war over Basmati:

Geographical Indications (GI) is a tag for agricultural and natural products produced in a particular region and area. The products that acquire a GI status increases the market value of the product and boosts up the export.

According to World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), “A geographical indication is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. In order to function as a GI, a sign must identify a product as originating in a given place. In addition, the qualities, characteristics or reputation of the product should be essentially due to the place of origin. Since the qualities depend on the geographical place of production, there is a clear link between the product and its original place of production.” Some examples of GI are Darjeeling tea – Darjeeling, Varanasi saree- Varanasi, Scotch- Scotland etc.

The story of the tiff between India and Pakistan dates back to the year 2008 when both jointly tried to file an application for the grant of GI status to Basmati rice. However, due to increasing political tensions, it was decided that the countries shall file for the application individually. In the year 2011, Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (hereinafter ‘APEDA’) filed for Basmati’s domestic GI registration which was granted in its favour in 2016.

In 2018, India filed for PROTECTED GEOGRAPHICAL INDICATION (PGI) before the European Commission, which would imply India’s sole ownership over Basmati exported to the European nations. The quality and specific features and all the characteristics required for the special status was fulfilled by India as per section Article 7(1) of the Regulation (EU) No. 1151/2012 of The European Parliament and of the Council and the application was published in September 2020 in the Official Journal of the European Union. Sensing the economic repercussions of these developments, Pakistan raised objections against India’s application. As per reports both India and Pakistan are Basmati exporters to the EU, where India contributes to 65%, Pakistan on the other hand contributes around 35% of the shipment of the rice. Grant of GI status for Basmati to India would result in a substantial loss of revenue for Pakistan. According to Pakistan, both India and Pakistan are joint producers of Basmati and granting special status to India would be unjustified.

Grounds of Opposition by Pakistan

In compliance with the 2004 decision of the European Council concerning an agreement between Pakistan and the EU, duty-free imports into the EU of certain Basmati varieties from Pakistan are permitted. Hence, one of the most efficient ground on which claims can be sustained by Pakistan is with the help of Article 10(1)(c) of the Regulation of the European Union Parliament and Council. It requires that the opposing party demonstrate that the registration would jeopardise the existence of products that ‘have been legally on the market for at least five years preceding the date of the publication’.

Also, in an earlier dispute which involved US based company RiceTec, India had challenged the said company when it tried to file a patent for Basmati, asserting that Basmati is grown in both India and Pakistan. This point may work in favour of Pakistan.

Issues that might be faced by Pakistan:

Domestic GI registration is a requirement for applying for GI protection in the EU. While Basmati is a registered GI product in India, it has still not been registered as a local product in Pakistan. Pakistan has enacted “the Geographical Indications (Registration and Protection) Act” in March 2020, which has not yet been implemented. (UPDATE: As per the latest news, Pakistan has granted GI tag for its Basmati rice thus creating a local registry for a particular strain of rice and making a case in the international market).

There is also a possibility that Pakistan might face a problem of demarcation of area. As discussed above, a GI product possesses distinct qualities owing to the area where it is produced. In other words, for getting a GI tag, particular environmental factors are required which contribute to the uniqueness of the product. For example, Darjeeling tea has a distinct taste and aroma because of the topography and climatic conditions of the area where it is grown and that’s what gave it a GI tag. However, if areas are not properly demarcated, grant of GI status before EU can be difficult. Since Pakistan is yet to fulfil this obligation, it may weaken its case before the EU.

Indian government has made it clear, that it is not claiming exclusivity on Basmati and Pakistan will still be able to sell it, although there will be difference in the apparent assessment of the product. Considering the above situation, one solution can be mutually sharing the GI status. Just like Canada has granted protected status for Pisco (a type of a brandy) to both Peru and Chile for ‘Pisco Peru and ‘Chilean Pisco’ respectively. Although the scenario between Peru and Chile is not the same but a parallel outcome could be drawn in case of India and Pakistan. But will the rising tensions between the two nations leave any scope for negotiation on Basmati? We can only wait and watch.

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