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For farmers' rights

Print edition : Feb 16, 2002 T+T-

Moves towards the effective implementation of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act make significant progress.

RULES give life to an Act: they are the blueprint to implement the law. Hence, the framing of rules to implement an Act is an exacting process that must involve everyone likely to be impacted by the law. One such in focus today is the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights Act (PPVFRA), which got the President's assent three months ago.

To help frame the rules and to discuss the efficient utilisation of plant genetic resources in the Asia-Pacific region, the M.S. Swaminathan Research Foundation (MSSRF) and the Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) collaborated to organise a three-day international consultation from January 20 at the MSSRF in Chennai. There were 85 participants from 10 countries, including farmers, plant breeders, environmental lawyers, gender experts, politicians, policy-makers, representatives from private and public sector companies, and experts from the FAO and the international agricultural research centres of the Consultative Group on International Agricultural Research (CGIAR). They discussed the rights of farmers, breeders and researchers, and the issues related to protecting the public interest. Also discussed were the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture adopted by the FAO General Conference in November 2001 as it had a special section on the operationalisation of farmers' rights.

The expert group came out with a number of recommendations for the implementation of the Act in India and also discussed issues pertaining to the effective use of the world's germplasm resources. It decided to set up an independent and autonomous authority to oversee the implementation of the Act. An appeal was made to integrate the implementation of the PPVFRA, the Biodiversity Act (yet to be approved by Parliament) and the Seed Act (the revised Act is before Parliament). The integration was deemed necessary in order to give all farmers access to good and appropriate seeds.

The group recommended the creation of resource centres for farmer-breeders and conservers to get them recognition and rewards under the Act. These centres will mobilise a corps of lawyers to travel in the rural areas and help members of panchayati raj institutions and families of farmers to understand the provisions of the PPVFRA, especially their entitlements. The need to recognise deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) fingerprinting for conflict resolution was emphasised.

The group felt that the National Gene Fund, as proposed in the Act, should be employed to recognise and reward the tribal people who conserved and enhanced agro-biodiversity. Recommending that administrative costs be kept to the minimum and be borne by the Centre, the consultants suggested the creation of a standing committee on farmers' rights not only to create awareness about the Act but also to work out transparent and credible methods to recognise the contributions of individuals and communities.

The National Gene Fund, it was recommended, should also be used for on-farm conservation measures, particularly in areas rich in agro-biodiversity such as Kolli Hills in Tamil Nadu, Wayanad in Kerala, Kutch in Gujarat, the Jeypore tract in Orissa and the northeastern States.

A novel idea floated by Supreme Court lawyer M.C. Mehta was the seed right - the right of seeds to survive. According to him, over 200 laws relating to environment protection was practised more in their breach. He suggested the development of food and health security sanctuaries in areas rich in food and medicinal genetic resources on the model of national parks and protected areas for wildlife.

Periodic training programmes on various aspects of the legislation should be undertaken in local languages, especially for the tribal people and farmers' families. For this, it was suggested that agricultural universities make use of the rural agricultural work experience (RAWE) programme to train students to help farmers' families access their rights.

For effective implementation of the Act, the consultants recommended the creation of institutional structures such as an autonomous national institute for varietal research to assess varieties for recognition under the Act. The institution should directly report to the authority set up to oversee the implementation of the PPVFRA. For this, the government can make use of existing institutions such as agricultural universities, laboratories of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research and Krishi Vigyan Kendras to assess the distinctness, uniformity and stability of particular varieties.

The group pointed out the absence of a mandatory funding mechanism and assured sources of funds as the major weakness of the FAO-steered International Treaty on Implementing Farmers' Rights. In the case of integrating various sui generis systems of implementing farmers' rights, the group felt the need to examine the value of harmonising the various systems of farmers' protection and also following minimum international standards of protection.

Pointing to the resource crunch faced by CGIAR systems and other institutions, the group noted that there was a need to collaborate with the private sector. However, all such collaborations must make research products available to the resource-poor farmers.

As the Asia-Pacific region had several common problems, the group felt the need to develop a regional cooperative network programme to share technical and other support systems. In the case of genetically-modified organisms, the group felt the need for an objective assessment; a biotechnology policy in each country to take care of biodiversity and biosecurity; and international trials to adhere strictly to national laws and regulations of the country in which the trials were conducted.

According to Dr. M.S. Swaminathan, the proposed amendments and the draft rules prepared by the group would be submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture. It is expected to facilitate the speedy implementation of the landmark Act and make a difference to the Indian farmer.