The Basmati question

By quashing the Centre’s orders, which confined the cultivation and seed production of Basmati to seven northern states, the Delhi High Court has essentially upheld Madhya Pradesh’s contention that its farmers can continue to produce this premium-quality aromatic rice as they have been doing for decades. The court’s verdict is based chiefly on the technicalities that the Centre’s directives were in contravention of the Seeds Act and that they encroached upon the domain of the state governments, as agriculture is a state subject. This decree, therefore, cannot be construed to automatically grant the geographical indications (GI) status to Madhya Pradesh’s scented rice as demanded by the state’s government, the rice industry and Basmati growers. That matter pertains to the Geographical Indications of Goods Act.

Madhya Pradesh, while challenging the agriculture ministry’s orders, had contended that Basmati was being grown for decades in 13 districts of the state and these should be included in the areas demarcated for GI-covered Basmati farming. However, the Basmati industry of the north and the apex farm exports promotion body, the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Agency (Apeda), do not buy this plea. Their main worry is that the inclusion of central India in the notified Basmati belt would dilute the exclusivity of the Basmati-growing region that qualifies it for the GI privilege. They also fear that the increased supply would lower the premium on the prices of this scented rice in the domestic and export markets.

At present, the Basmati tag is reserved solely for the fragrant rice grown in the Indo-Gangetic plains along the Himalayan foothills in the states of Punjab, Haryana, Delhi, Uttarakhand, the Jammu region of Jammu and Kashmir, and western parts of Uttar Pradesh. The typical characteristics that set Basmati apart from the other aromatic rice varieties include long slender seeds that elongate on cooking, instead of swelling; distinct aroma; and soft, fluffy and non-sticky texture of the grains. Besides, real Basmati is photo-sensitive in nature, meaning that its seeds can perform to their potential only under specific agro-ecological conditions found in the north-western Indo-Gangetic zone. Conducive ecological factors are deemed imperative for the development of typical aroma and taste in the Basmati grains.

That said, the truth that is often disregarded by the stakeholders in the Basmati sector is that many of the officially recognised Basmati varieties are not pure-bred or pedigreed Basmati lines but are the “derived Basmati” strains with only one of the parents being genuine Basmati. The bulk of the Basmati exports are also of the derived varieties. However, their legal status as Basmati under the GI convention is indisputable. Since many of the varieties grown in Madhya Pradesh are either the same or similar to those grown in the north, they can safely be acknowledged as Basmati even if, technically, they do not qualify for the GI tag on a geographical location basis. There should, therefore, be no objection to Madhya Pradesh’s aromatic rice being traded as Basmati at least in the domestic market to cater to the huge and rapidly growing demand for this delectable rice. The state’s Basmati traders would be well-advised also to develop their own brands of aromatic rice for the domestic market. That would be a win-win situation for all stakeholders in the rice sector, including growers, traders and consumers.

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