Rice of the rural kind

Recognition of indigenous resources and knowledge takes a backseat as a farmer's rights as breeder are not recognised by the establishment in Maharashtra. MEENA MENON reports on the controversy.

SIXTY-FIVE-YEAR-OLD Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade is a farmer with a grouse. He is a celebrity in Vidarbha for developing a variety of rice called HMT, which is now grown over a large part of the region. A native of Nanded village in Nagbid tehsil of Chandrapur district in Maharashtra, a decade ago, he selected and bred a variety of rice, mystifyingly named HMT, which has become popular in neighbouring States as well.

However, his efforts have gone largely unnoticed by the agriculture research establishment. He is a man with little means and has to work for daily wages to support his seven-member family. He sold his two acres after his son fell ill and now cultivates three acres given to his son by a relative.

In 1994, a rice breeder from the nearby Sindewahi rice station, a part of the Punjabarao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth at Akola, took five kg of HMT seeds from Khobragade saying that the rice station wanted to experiment with it. In 1998, a new variety was released in the State called PKV HMT after the researchers "purified" the seed they had obtained from

Khobragade. "Now these new seeds are sold for Rs. 1,200 a quintal. What have I got out of all this? The government wants to deprive me of any credit and the variety they claim to have released is exactly like mine - I don't think there is a difference," said Khobragade.

When it first hit the market, HMT fetched double the price of other varieties on sale, farmers said. Its popularity prompted the scientists at the University to release PKV HMT after pressure from the farmers who wanted the seeds. It fetches a higher price than most other rice varieties due to its short grain and good eating and cooking qualities.

Khobragade is undeterred by this lack of respect for his work and continues to make new selections and breed them. So far, he has developed six new varieties of rice. He proudly displays each variety which he has carefully framed and labelled. One variety is mildly scented and he has named another DRK after himself. The average yield of all the new varieties is about 15-16 quintals per acre.

Activists working on preserving farmers' rights said that the establishment did not want to recognise the farmer as a breeder. In 1983, Khobragade noticed a variation in the paddy growing in his field, which was planted with Patel 3, a popular variety at that time. He started collecting the seeds of the plants which were different and kept those seeds aside. Soon, he began distributing this new variety to other farmers.

Bhimrao Shinde, a large landowner in Nanded village, was the first to take one quintal of seeds from Khobragade and grow this variety which did not even have a name. "I got 90 bags from four acres, and when I took this variety of rice to the market, the dealers said they had not seen it before. They asked me the name and I did not know what to say," said Mr. Shinde. "At that time HMT watches were very popular and suddenly someone decided to call it HMT and the name stuck," he added.

The village of Nanded has many brick and tile houses, an improvement over thatched huts. This prosperity is due to HMT rice, local villagers claimed. It is the top variety in the region, according to Shinde, who has been growing it every year since 1990. Its popularity has spread to Andhra Pradesh and even other States like Madhya Pradesh.

The officials at the Sindewahi rice station which is part of the Punjarbrao Deshmukh Krishi Vidyapeeth at Akola, claim that they have purified the local HMT variety and released it under its new avatar called PKV HMT. The samples of this new variety are proudly displayed in the small office of the rice station. G. R. Shyamkuwar, a junior plant breeder, said that the PKV HMT selection gave a yield of 40-45 quintals per hectare - much more than the local HMT variety. "I don't know the origin of HMT but we got the seeds from a local farmer," he said. He refused to admit that the farmer could have selected and bred this variety.

Jacob Nellithanam, an activist with Kisani Samvardhan Kendra, an Indore-based organisation, which has been campaigning for the conservation of indigenous genetic resources, said, "Farmers have been selecting varieties that are promising and adapted to the local climate and soil conditions for several years. That is how there is so much diversity. In this case, the farmer has selected a variation of Patel 3 and it became popular because it had certain qualities. The new variety - PKV HMT - released by the University, is from the same seed that was selected by Khobragade who also observed it for a few generations and checked for stability of characteristics."

He said this had to be seen in the light of Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) and the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Bill, 2000, which creates monopoly property rights on plant varieties by establishing breeder's rights which is legally protected and equivalent to patents. The main opposition to the WTO agreement is the patent on plant varieties. It can become a property right which can be used by seed companies, and plant breeding will move from the farmers domain to the property of companies through various mechanisms, he added.

A. D. Bhombe, Assistant Professor, Botany, at the Punjabrao Deshmukh college of Agriculture at Nagpur, who was earlier a senior rice breeder at the Sindewahi rice station, said the original selection of HMT was made by the farmer. "We felt that this HMT was mixture and it needed to be purified. The seeds were collected from this farmer and we purified it. Farmers cannot maintain individual plant selections over the years. In the farmer's method, there is some chance of natural crossing."

In eastern Vidarbha, HMT is a popular variety and improved varieties occupy almost 80 per cent of the total area. In 1999- 2000, the Nagpur division comprising Wardha, Nagpur, Bhandara, Chandrapur and Gadchiroli accounted for 6,88,000 hectares of rice area. Maharashtra has a total of 14.8 lakh hectares under rice, according to the economic survey, 2000-2001. The division accounts for the second largest rice are in the State after the Konkan region.

Ashish Kothari, Coordinator of the Technical and Policy Core Group to formulate the government's National Biodiversity Strategy and Action Plan and founder-member of Kalpavriksh, a 20- year-old environmental action group, said that India was signatory to the Biological Diversity Convention in 1993 which commits it to protect indigenous resources and knowledge. In this case, the University should have sought the consent of the farmer - it is not merely enough to give him a letter, it has to be informed consent - and the benefits, if any, from the variety should also accrue to him.

A revised version of the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Rights Bill, 2000, is now before Parliament. A new section on farmers' rights has been added but activists feel that instead of simplifying the issues, the bill complicates them. It is still not clear how a farmer's variety will be registered, according to a report by the Public Interest Legal Support and Research Centre (PILSARC), New Delhi.

The bill has laid down what developed countries and breeders want. Khobragade, among the many farmers who have not even heard of the Bill, then is no exception in this scheme of things.

He may select and breed a million varieties but they will remain "impure" selections in the eyes of scientists. He may also not be in a position to claim his rights. Unless there is a radical change in thinking, protection of farmers' rights will remain merely on paper.