The draft Seed Bill, 2019, released by the agriculture ministry for public comments, has not gone down well with the farmers or the seed industry, though it is broadly aimed at protecting the interests of both. One of the major sore points in the mooted law that would replace the outworn Seed Act, 1966, is the absence of an in-built mechanism for grievance redressal. In case of any failure or underperformance of the seeds, the affected farmers would have to seek compensation under the Consumer (Protection) Act, 1986. Not only farmers, the industry is also uneasy with this arrangement as the performance of seeds depends on several agro-climatic, agronomic and biological factors, apart from the quality parameters, which the consumer courts may be ill-equipped to gauge. In fact, the Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Protection Law, 2001, has far better provisions for this purpose, which have worked well to the satisfaction of both farmers and seed producers. The same needs to be incorporated into this Bill.
Another prickly issue is the powers given to the Union and state governments to cap the prices of registered (read patent-protected) seeds. Though the Bill lists the situations under which such a step can be taken, past experience shows that this provision is often misused for political gains. Such interventions are needless in the functioning of a sector comprising over 400 seed companies vying with one another for market share. Besides, retrograde measures like price control could prove counterproductive by discouraging fresh investment in the development of new and improved seeds. Already, some of the internationally acclaimed innovation-savvy multinational seed companies have left India for this reason.
This apart, the Bill seems to further complicate the legal framework governing the seed sector. Even now, this industry has to cope with at least eight different laws, policy pronouncements and official orders. The major ones among these are the Seed Act, 1966; the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001; the Essential Commodities Act, 1955; the Seed (control) Order, 1983; and the National Seed Policy, 2002. Instead of paring down this multiplicity of regulations, the proposed statute intends to exacerbate it by subjecting this sector to two more formidable laws — the Consumer Protection Act, 1986, and the Environment Protection Act, 1986. While the former is for settling disputes over the performance of the seeds, the latter is for granting permission for the registration of the genetically modified seeds for which a slot has been created in this Bill.
It’s not that the Bill does not have some welcome features as well. It makes registration of seeds of all crop varieties (except the farmers’ varieties) mandatory and specifies standards for this. Registration has also been made compulsory for all stakeholders in the seed sector, from producers to retailers. Interestingly, the Bill seeks to differentiate between the seed producers, processors and dealers for the purpose of licensing. And most importantly, it protects the farmers’ rights to sow, exchange or even sell their farm-grown seed but without branding them. However, these plus-points would not be able to woo the much-needed private investment in this sector, unless the glaring deficiencies of the Seed Bill are addressed to the satisfaction of all the stakeholders, especially the farmers and the seed developers.