Seed Bill 2011 : Anti-Farmer, Pro-Agribusiness

Ever since the Seed Bill 2004 was introduced, it has met with severe opposition from farmers, who recognised it as an assault on their traditional rights over seeds. As a result, it was referred to a Parliamentary Standing Committee, which did recommend several amendments in keeping with the concerns of farmers’ organisations. A 2008 edition of the Bill introduced in Parliament accepted many of these recommendations, but that Bill lapsed with the 14th Lok Sabha. Once again in 2010, the Cabinet approved a new edition of the Bill, and the Agriculture Minister moved several amendments in November 2010 and in February 2011. The Bill, incorporating the latest amendments, will now be called the Seed Bill 2011.      
Before we discuss the specific provisions of the Seed Bill, we should remember that in India, “30% of seeds sown every year in India by small and big farmers are supplied by the formal seed trade. The remaining 70% lies in the farmer seed system.” (S Bala Ravi, EPW, August 7, 2010) Therefore, the purpose of a Seed Bill cannot be to regulate or restrict the traditional rights of farmers in any way. Rather, it should be to protect the farmer from spurious and poor quality seeds in the market, and to protect farmers from exploitative pricing and ensure proper supply of seeds.
In response to outspoken protest, the Seed Bill in its latest amended shape explicitly states that it will not “restrict the right of the farmer to grow, sow, re-sow, save, use, exchange, share or sell his farm seeds or planting material,” and it also specifies that the farmer is not to be included under the ambit of ‘producer.’ But it does restrict the farmer from selling such seeds or material under a brand name.
The Bill now defines the farmer as a cultivator of crops and also as “the person who conserves or preserves, severally or jointly with any person, any traditional varieties or adds values to such traditional varieties through selection and identification of their useful properties.” These amendments are, however, inadequate to protect the full traditional rights of farmers as cultivators, conservers, and breeders of new seed varieties. The Seed Bill must protect the rights of farmers to grow, breed, select, sow, re-sow, save, use, exchange, share, distribute or sell all varieties of seeds.  
The Seed Bill in its present form cannot protect farmers from exploitative pricing or hoarding of seeds, because it has no provisions for price controls and fixing of royalty, nor for ensuring supply of seeds. In the last few years, farmers and many state governments have been challenging exorbitant pricing and royalty by companies like Monsanto. The AP Government had to slash the price of Bt-cotton seed by more than half of what Monsanto had fixed. Seed companies have gone to court challenging the right of state government to regulate prices and royalty. The Seed Bill must provide for stringent regulation of prices and royalty, as well as supply.   
The Bill provides for compulsory registration and certification for all commercially traded seeds (barring farmer varieties). The Bill provides for registration for 10 years for annual and biennial seeds, and 12 years for long duration perennials. It also allows for re-registration. Effectively, therefore, it allows commercial marketing of registered seeds for 20 years for annual/biennial varieties and 24 years for perennials. This paves the way for seed monopolies by a back door route. This provision for re-registration must be deleted and the registration period further shortened.
Unlike the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights (PPVFR) Act, the Seed Bill has no provision for pre-registration publication of the application and for pre-grant opposition, in case members of the public know the seed to be spurious or sub-standard. Further, whereas the PVPFRA requires the declaration of parentage and pedigree of seeds, the Seed Bill does not. This will encourage piracy of seeds developed by famers or in the public domain. One of the most objectionable clauses – of provisional registration for transgenic seeds - has been deleted in the 2010-11 amendments. 
The Bill requires compulsory certification of seeds (except farmer varieties) by accredited agencies owned or controlled by central or state governments. This is certainly an improvement on the 2004 Bill which allowed for “voluntary certification” and “truthfully labelled” seeds.  
In spite of great opposition, the clause allowing the Central Government to grant recognition to recognition to foreign seed certification agencies has been retained. Foreign certification is unacceptable, simply because seeds must be tested for performance in Indian soil and climate conditions in multiple locations before being given registration.  
The Bill stipulates multi-location locations to check the seed’s performance, as a crucial pre-condition for registration. But which institution will be empowered to conduct these trials? The Standing Committee had recommended that only accredited government/semi-government/autonomous organisations, such as the Indian Council of Agricultural Research, State Agricultural Universities, conduct such trials. The 2008 edition of the Bill had accepted this amendment, but the 2010-11 version reverts to the 2004 Bill’s provision for private “organizations fulfilling the eligibility requirements” to conduct the trials. This will undoubtedly lead to conflict of interest, wherein the tame in-house organisations of Monsanto-type private interests may qualify to conduct the trials on the seeds marketed by the same interests!
Similarly, the Bill provides for Central and State Seed Testing Laboratories. But while the 2008 version of the Bill had, in keeping with Standing Committee recommendations, excluded laboratories in the “non-government sector,” the 2010-11 version again brings back the clause allowing seed testing laboratories “in the Government or non-Government sector.”
A Central Seed Committee (CSC) will be constituted to oversee implementation of the Seed Act, and every State Government shall also establish a State Seed Committee. However, all states are not represented on the CSC, and farmers too are inadequately represented.   
In the latest version of the Bill, Seed Inspectors will have to take prior written permission from District Magistrate to search any place where they believe the Seed Act is being violated. They will be empowered to break open doors or containers where seed is being stored. But, as a concession to apprehensions that these powers may be misused to harass farmers, the latest amendments require the Seed Inspector to conduct these actions in the presence of two independent persons from the locality.
The penalty for violating the Act, selling or importing misbranded seeds, or selling substandard seeds, is still fixed extremely low, at between Rs 25,000 and Rs 1 lakh, while the penalty for giving false information will be a prison term of up to 1 year and a fine of up to Rs 5 lakh. Not only should the penalty be of a truly deterrent nature, there must be provision for blacklisting of offending individuals and companies.     
The clause on penalties retains a loophole for any official of a seed companies, maintaining that he will not be liable to any punishment “if he proves that the offence was committed without his knowledge.” Again, this provision in the 2004 edition was deleted in 2008, but brought back in 2010-11! This is nothing but an escape route for guilty officials. Also, the Seed Bill has no liability clause holding seed exporters responsible for compensation and clean-up in case of any pest outbreak. 
The latest amendments in the Seed Bill allow the Central Government to exempt from the provisions of the Act “any educational, scientific, research or extension organisation.” Unless this clause is restricted only to well-established public sector institutions, in-house ‘research’ institutions of private seed companies might seek and secure exemption!
The Bill does not provide for any time-bound mechanism for farmers to get a hearing for their complaints, nor does it set out any terms for compensation. Grievance redressal must be time-bound, and compensation should be fixed to cover costs incurred by the farmer, as well as the shortfall from the value of the expected yield and promised performance.    
The Seed Bill in its present form stipulates no adequate safeguards to protect against ‘terminator’ seeds. It paves the way for GM (transgenic) seeds being researched and marketed by MNC seed monopolies, without putting in place any adequately stringent procedures for verifying bio-safety or safety for human consumption. 

The Seed Bill, including many of the latest amendments, show signs that powerful commercial interests and seed companies are exerting pressures on the policy-makers in the UPA Government. These pro-agribusiness features of the Bill must be resisted and the Seed Bill must protect farmers’ rights, incorporate adequate safeguards against commercial and MNC interests seeking to control the seed market, and guarantee farmers’ rights to proper supply of affordable and high quality seeds.