Back Gujarat farmers against whom PepsiCo has slapped lawsuits: Rights groups to Centre

This case is being heard in the Aravalli district court in Modasa. (Express Photo By Prashant Ravi)

Leading rights groups and inpiduals working for farmers' rights in the country have sought Central government's intervention to protect at least nine farmers in Gujarat against whom PepsiCo India, the Indian subsidiary of the US food and beverage giant, has slapped lawsuits for allegedly growing and selling potato variety exclusively registered with the company for manufacturing chips of the Lay's brand.

In a letter to the chairperson and registrar of Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights (PPV&FR) Authority, which is under the central government's Ministry of Agriculture and Farmer's Welfare, the 192 signatories have sought the court cases against the farmers be withdrawn. They have also asked the government to issue a notification barring any private firm to trespass into a farmer's field without duly informing the local district agriculture office and farmer's prior informed consent.

On a suit filed by PepsiCo India Holdings Pvt Ltd, the Ahmedabad city civil court earlier this month had barred four farmers of Sabarkantha district - Bipin Patel, Chhabil Patel, Vinod Patel and Haribhai Patel - from growing and selling potatoes till April 26. PepsiCo had complained to the court that the farmers were "illegally" growing and selling a potato variety -- FL-2027 - exclusively registered with the company. On the company's plea, the court had appointed an advocate as the court commissioner to conduct an inquiry into the dispute and file a report.

In 2018, the same company had slapped civil suits against five farmers - Prabhudas Patel, Bharat Patel, Jeetu Patel, Vinod Patel and Jigarkumar Patel - all from Aravalli district alleging that these farmers have been "illegally" growing the trademark potato variety 'FL-2027' (commercial name FC-5).

This case is being heard in the Aravalli district court in Modasa.

"While they (PepsiCo India Holdings) say this is an infringement on their intellectual property, we say this is an infringement on the farmers' privacy and their rights. The company conducted a sting operation in the first place, wherein they deployed detective agencies to procure the potato samples from these (nine) farmers… For a company like PepsiCo, it is not a matter of mere Rs 1 crore are seeking from each of the four farmers in damages. It is rather an intimidation tactic and to make a statement about their (corporation's) power," Vinay Mahajan of Loknaad, an Ahmedabad-based non-profit organisation, said.

With the company reportedly telling the court that it is the registered breeder of the FL-2027 variety of potatoes under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights (PPV&FR) Act, 2001, Mahajan said that the case does not stand as per Section 39 of the said Act.

"India had designed a sui-generis law Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers' Rights (PPV&FR) Act, 2001, in compliance with the WTO's TRIPS Agreements. Under Section 39 of this Act, farmers are exempted from such trademarks," said Kapil Shah of Jatan, a Vadodara-based NGO.

According to Shah, the section itself says, "a farmer shall be deemed to be entitled to save, use, sow, resow, exchange, share or sell his farm produce, including seed of a variety protected under this Act, in the same manner as he was entitled before the coming into the force of this Act, provided that the farmer shall not be entitled to sell branded seed of a variety protected under this Act".

In the letter to PPV&FR Authority, the signatories have demanded that the government must make a public statement and also tell the courts, explaining the farmers' rights as enshrined in the Act.

"Farmers and Bharatiya Kisan Sangh have also given representations to the state government, highlighting their plight. But there has been no response from them yet," Shah said.

The next hearing in the case at Ahmedabad city civil court is scheduled for April 26.