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Government of India is expected to introduce the Seeds Bill 2019 in the ongoing winter session of the Parliament. The Bill, expected to replace the Seeds Act 1966, has been pending since 2004. Among other things, it aims to regulate quality, production, distribution, sale, import and export of seeds. It also seeks to provide a mechanism to register every seed variety into a national seed register. In addition, the Bill contains provisions for capping the price of particular seed varieties by the Central and state governments.
The new version of the Seeds Bill reverses the provisions of self-certification and certification of seed varieties by accredited companies as contained in the 2004 version. Instead, it demands that every seed variety is registered with the government directly. Given that India has at least 100,000 varieties of rice alone; no one is sure how the government will register each variety and make rules with respect to the germination and health of the seeds. In all probability, the process for registration is likely to be costly and time-consuming for both farmers, seed-tech firms and the government.
The only good aspect of the Bill is that it exempts native varieties by farmers out of purview of the need for registration. However, this exemption is restricted to unbranded varieties only, meaning if a farmer seeks to commercialise their own varieties, they will have to register the variety and obtain a certificate for selling the same. Compulsory registration and certification of each seed variety in the market is an instrument of exclusion. It will hurt enterprising farmers the most. If the Bill is passed, the government has proposed to fine farmers up to Rs 100,000 for selling their seeds without registration and certification.
The other major issue with the Bill is that it leaves the question of genetically modified (GM) seeds unanswered. Despite numerous restrictions by the government, farmers in India have openly defied the law and have planted GM crops. In summer 2019, in an act of civil disobedience, Satyagraha, Maharashtra farmers openly planted illegal GM cotton seeds. The Bill, instead of consolidating the registration and certification of all seeds by one authority, seeks to continue with the present mechanism of approval of GM seeds under the Environment (Protection) Act, 1986. Moreover, it adds another layer of registration and certification.
The government has ignored the fact that we need GM seeds to feed 1.3 billion people, without them farm produce will be susceptible to insects and herbicides. Our farmers cannot wait for decade-long approval process under the current law. It is against this cumbersome, opaque and arbitrary process that farmers have been agitating and openly defying the law.
The question of which seeds to buy and plant should be left to the farmers alone provided that the seeds have been tested for health and environment concerns. Further, as far as the question of protecting farmers from spurious seeds is concerned, it should be taken care of under the existing laws including the Indian Contract Act and the Consumer Protection Act. There is no need of a separate law for seeds, if we go down that road, we might have millions of laws for each consumer product.
If every seed is to be registered in a costly and time-consuming process envisaged by the Bill, the cost of the seeds will increase hurting the very farmers the Bill claims to protect. Moreover, it is well-known that farmers in the hope of earning a better living are willing to pay a premium for high quality GM seeds, even at the risk of going to jail. The government must institutionalisation of a predictable, affordable, pre-defined and clear legal process for approving all kinds of seeds, instead of coming up with more burdensome regulations in already distressed agricultural sector.
(The author is a senior official with New Delhi based, CCS Advocacy. Facts and views expressed in the article are author’s own.)