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July 6, 1998


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Bio Bill could sound death-knell for farmers, warn activists

The draft Biodiversity Bill protects bureaucrats more than it does farmers who grow basmati, turmeric and other valuable Indian crops coveted by multi-national corporations.

According to leading activists Vandana Shiva and Ashish Kothari, the draft circulated by the Centre to all chief ministers for approval before legislation in Parliament does nothing to protect those growing basmati or other crops.

Instead, the draft, actually the third one, goes out of its way to protect bureaucrats by cleverly making all decisions related to biodiversity outside the scope of the judicial system.

''No suit, prosecution or legal proceeding shall lie against any officer or other employee of the Central government or the state government for anything which is done in good faith in pursuance of this act or the rules made thereunder,'' says Article 27 of the Draft Act.

Article 29 states that ''no court shall take cognisance under this Act except one complaint made by the Central government or any authority or officer authorised in this behalf by that government.''

For good measure Article 30 says that no civil court will have jurisdiction to entertain any suit or proceeding in respect of anything done under the Act by the government or its officials.

According to Shiva, an unaccountable bureaucracy is a threat to democracy and the people's rights in any context but in this case there are serious implications.

''The immunity of the bureaucracy combined with power and unaccountability of the multi-nationals could easily work to usurp the resources and knowledge of the people,'' she said.

If the Draft Bill goes through, it would prevent any citizen , or community, from filing a public interest litigation or seek other remedy against bureaucrats discovered to act in the interests of biopirates.

''In other words, the bureaucracy of the environment ministry would like to have powers to sell and destroy our national wealth without being accountable to Indian people or the Indian courts,'' Shiva said.

In fact, the ''swadeshi'' Biodiversity Bill is an attempt to end all rights and citizens' freedoms in the area of biodiversity and knowledge -- it is an attempt to establish the rule of biopiracy and biopirates, she charged.

Besides, says Kothari, the bill fails to regulate Indian companies which can find ways to collude with multi-nationals and loot India's wealth in biodiversity.

The basmati case amply highlighted the need to have laws which protect indigenous innovation symbolised in the breeding of varieties like basmati by India's farmers, Shiva and Kothari said.

''The theft involved in the basmati patent is a theft of the intellectual and biodiversity heritage of Indian farmers and also a theft from Indian traders and a deception of consumers,'' Shiva said.

Emboldened by India's lack of laws to protect its biodiversity or the intellectual property rights of its farmers, a Texas-based company called Rice-Tec was recently granted patents to make and market basmati.

The Rice-Tec patent allows as many as 20 claims -- 11 relating to the plant, five to the grain, three to breeding methods and one to the seed.

But what is serious is Rice-Tec's claim to use the word ''basmati'' exclusively although it is well accepted internationally that only long grain aromatic rice grown in India and Pakistan can be so called.

The usurpation of the trade name will seriously affect Indian as well as Pakistani traders who export basmati rice and in future other well-known Indian produce as well, thanks to the lack of patent laws.

Indian companies have been helpless in preventing tea grown in Sri Lanka and Kenya from being sold as Darjeeling tea which denotes the fine aromatic produce of north Bengal.

Foreign companies, in sharp contrast, are zealous about protection of such names as champagne from France, scotch from Scotland, coffee from Colombia or Havana cigars from Cuba. Violators have been hauled to court and made to pay heavy penalties.

According to Suman Sahai, patent expert and chief of the non-governmental organisation Gene Campaign, the basmati case is a clear violation of the geographical indication clause of the Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights.

Under the Trips agreements, the laws on biodiversity, plants and micro-organisms must be ready by the end of next year.


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