Agriculture

How a Rice Variety Bred by an Industrious Maharashtra Farmer Was Pirated

A plant-breeder painstakingly selected plants for resowing their seeds, a common good, to arrive at a distinct and stable variety – only to see it wind its way into the hands of a private agent.

Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade. Credit: NIF

Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade. Credit: NIF

Grown over a million acres of farmland, the HMT rice variety – developed by Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade, a small cultivator and self-trained plant breeder – has brought a measure of prosperity to a few hundred thousand farmers in Maharashtra and neighbouring states.

Khobragade, now 78 years old, is from a predominantly Buddhist-Dalit village called Nanded, in Nagbid tehsil of the eastern Chandrapur district of Maharashtra. The temperature there had crossed 40º C in early April this year. His HMT rice, grown here since the late 1980s, is a mildly fragrant fine-grain variety with good cooking quality, and a flavour reminiscent of the traditionally popular Kolam rice.

When the market needed a name, the HMT watches were popular at the time and it was the first thing that came to mind. The consumer preference for HMT rice soon earned it a price twice that of the rice varieties grown earlier by local farmers. HMT was also well-suited to the agro-ecological conditions in much of the region.

I knew Dadaji and of his claim to fame. But stepping inside his village house, I did not expect to find the walls of the small front room crammed with awards, certificates and photographs of felicitation ceremonies, including one with A.P.J. Abdul Kalam, the country’s former president. When I commented on all the acclaim, Dadaji smiled: “One hundred and three,” he said. “That includes all the felicitations and awards.”

The story of HMT began around 1982, when he noticed that a rice plant in his paddy field was significantly different from the others. The grains in its panicles were more compactly held. He selected its seeds for careful replanting, repeating the process each season for several years until the variety stabilised and manifested its unique traits. By the 1990s, the HMT story was a local legend and farmers’ demand for HMT seeds has peaked to a clamour.

In 1994, an official from the nearby Sindewahi Rice Station, under Punjabrao Krishi Vidyapeeth (PKV) Agricultural University at Akola, visited Khobragade and returned with five kg of HMT seeds “for experimentation”, signing a receipt for it. In 1998, PKV released the PKV-HMT rice. It claimed to have “purified” the earlier variety – but it did not publicly acknowledge that it had sourced the seeds from the original farmer-breeder, which is Khobragade himself.

A token reward

In 2004, an article in The Hindu brought a flood of public recognition to Khobragade and his rice-breeding work. The first Richharia Samman award, instituted in the memory of R.H. Richharia, one of the foremost rice scientists in the world and who had made many contributions to conserving rice diversity, honoured Khobragade for developing HMT and several other rice varieties.

Khobragade also received a number of awards from the governments of Maharashtra as well as India. In 2005, the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) honoured him for developing the HMT paddy variety. It also collected the seeds of HMT, DRK and seven other rice varieties he had developed till then from him, together with the authorisation to register them with the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority (PPVFRA) under the PPVFR Act, 2001.

NIF’s application for registering HMT rice was submitted to the PPVFRA on January 16, 2008. The certificates of registration were granted another four years later, on April 4, 2012. The certificate specifically provides: “exclusive right to produce, sell, market, distribute, import or export the variety; and of authorising anyone to do so” (emphasis added). But surprisingly, the registration granted was for ‘Dadaji HMT’ and not simply ‘HMT’, as the variety was widely known. Perhaps this allowed for PKV-HMT, essentially the same as the popular HMT variety bred by Khobragade, to be registered separately.

Some weeks earlier, on February 21, 2012, NIF posted the following message on its website: “Under the Technology Acquisition Fund (TAF), NIF will obtain the rights of technologies from innovators after compensating them … NIF will then disseminate/diffuse them at low cost or no cost for the larger benefit of the society” (emphasis added). It continued, “In this meeting (on 21-2-2012), 24 farmers from 8 states, who had developed over 39 improved varieties of 15 crops like paddy, wheat, mustard, bean, pigeon pea, cardamom, pepper, etc. participated, and Rs 13,00,000 disbursed to them from the TAF” (sic).

On the same day, NIF had obtained Khobragade’s signature on an electronic stamp paper document, transferring all his rights (including intellectual property rights) under the PPVFRA certification for HMT and DRK paddy to NIF for a combined sum of Rs 1,00,000 (Rs 50,000 for each variety).

HMT rice had already been widely adopted since the 1990s. At the same time, it is unclear what the NIF has accomplished in the last five years to “disseminate/ diffuse (the crop variety) at low/no cost for the larger benefit of society,” as it had claimed it would do. And what was the need to acquire exclusive rights over the variety for such a purpose?

Rs 50,000 is at best a token and is hardly adequate compensation for acquiring exclusive rights, especially for a variety like HMT, which has a sales turnover of several thousand crore rupees per year. Khobragade believes that his DRK variety has the potential to fare even better.

Subsequently, the NIF had advanced Khobragade a loan of Rs 3 lakh at 12.5 % interest for “production and commercialization” of the HMT/DRK varieties. He repaid Rs 1 lakh. In January 2015, he suffered a cerebral stroke. By a letter dated May 21, 2015, the NIF asked him to repay the balance loan which, along with interest till then, amounted to Rs 2,39,147. Adding to Khobragade’s misfortune, the monsoon rains that year were poor and so were the harvests.

In a severe financial crunch, Khobragade’s son Mitrajit urged the NIF to forego its loan or at least the interest on it. He also requested payment of some returns on the rice varieties bred by his father to meet pressing debts, including medical expenses. In response, the NIF suggested the transfer of HMT seed rights to a private commercial company for repaying the foundation and earning some returns for Khobragade.

Squandering common heritage

As for Khobragade’s DRK rice variety, the NIF’s initial application in 2009 (REG/2009/333) for registering it with the PPVFRA categorised it as a “farmers’ variety”. But after Khobragade’s rights were transferred to the NIF, the latter made a fresh/amended application for registering DRK under a new category. This was learnt from a PPVFRA letter to the NIF dated March 4, 2016. It was copied to Khobragade and requested “5 pkts (of DRK rice seeds) of 100 grams each for second year testing”. DRK stands for the name of its breeder: Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade. But between 2009 and 2016, this variety could have been registered by anyone with the PPVFRA under another name.

The PPVFRA has also failed to inform Khobragade about the fate of the other rice rice varieties submitted on his behalf by the NIF for registration with the authority. These are:

1. Nanded 92
2. Nanded Chinoor
3. Vijay Nanded
4. Dipak Ratna
5. Nanded Hira
6. Kate HMT
7. and DRK-2

… all developed by Khobragade before 2005.

This is the sad story of a genuine plant breeder who carefully selected plants for resowing their seeds. And he painstakingly continues the process over several generations to finally arrive at a distinct, uniform and stable variety, only to see it wind its way into the hands of some private company or its agents. More incredible yet is the plot for privatising and pirating the seeds – a common good that represents the collective heritage of several hundred thousand crop varieties, selected and bred by countless generations of farmers before us.

Such privatisation follows the same process of some farmer or organisation registering these (sometimes unwittingly) with the PPVFRA as ‘farmers’ varieties’, claiming that they are “the true breeders” of the concerned variety/varieties and thereby acquiring exclusive rights bestowed by the certificate of registration.

It is estimated that over 700 rice varieties thus registered by the PPVFRA are of indigenous origin. Numerous traditional varieties of other crops have been similarly registered with it. While the PPVFR Act recognises “varieties of common knowledge”, the concerned authorities have not even begun the vital process of registering these as a collective heritage, protected from any IPR claims.

The overriding interest of the PPVFR Authority also seems to be in the opposite direction. With the stroke of a pen – as the PPVFRA’s ‘Registrar of Plant Varieties’ signs a certificate of registration bestowing exclusive rights for a farmer’s crop variety – it is privatised in the form of ‘intellectual property’ for selling to some company. What is also lost in this process is a millennia-old tradition of sharing seeds for free out of simple good will.

Bharat Mansata is a writer and environmental activist involved in ecological regeneration, organic agriculture and the movement for conserving and sharing seeds.