Basmati rice seems to have become synonymous with controversy yet again. Recently, a leading English daily described Super as "Pakistan's premium evolved basmati". Super is actually not a basmati variety. It is a hybrid, with one basmati parent, but it is being sold in Europe as basmati from Pakistan and this in turn is affecting the sales of genuine Indian basmati varieties.
This is only one elemment of the controversies surrounding basmati. Although the application for its registration as a 'Geographical Indication (GI) was filed back in August 2004, the process has seen nothing more than hiccoughs and bumps. According to Vinay K Jain, Lawyer and GI Consultant, the process of registration of Basmati needs to be expeditious in view of its international significance. While other GI applications filed around the same time and thereafter have been processed and notified, nothing has moved on the front of Basmati. Basmati, Neem and Turmeric have a unique history of being hijacked and subjected to international piracy and infringement of Intellectual Property Rights of India by companies in the US and other countries.
What is needed to ensure secure protection for Basmati as a GI? First, Basmati needs to be registered as one, and the traditional varieties of basmati need to be identified completely. Protection as a GI will automatically address the issue of spuriousness of basmati. Presently, a lot of the rice packed and sold in Haryana is called basmati, although it is well known that not all of this is basmati, In the absence of legal recognition of definition of basmati varieties, however, there is very little that can be done to end this practice.
Another problem is the tardiness of existing policy provisions. According to Jain, the Registrar's Office in Chennai is understaffed. Its six officials are curiously engaged in spreading awareness all over the country about GI protection, at the cost of actually processing GI applications like the one for Basmati. The only reaction from the office that the applicants have received to their application filed 17 months ago is a series of objections, says Jain. The applicants sent out responses to the Office and instead of arriving at the next step in the application procedure, the Office sent back the same objections, to which the applicants replied again. A Consultative Committe, that is to be formed immediately after an application is filed, is also still absent.
Does all this mean the application for GI status is likely to be denied? Almost certainly, such a decision would cause great furore, in addition to embarrassment for the Indian government - at basmati being denied GI protection in the land of its origin!
Vinay Jain also calms the fear that legal differentiation of basmati from non-basmati brands will cause the farmers to lose out on profit. On the contrary, he says; legal protection will sieve out the genuine basmati and this will shoot up the demand and hence the price of the genuine varieties - profiting the legal sellers. Jain also cites the finding of a study, India, the European Union and Geographical Indications (GI): Convergence of Interests and Challenges Ahead, that after GI registration, the demand for products typically rose, and prices appreciated by 30%. (http://www.ris.org.in/dp35_pap.pdf)
Other than the rice merchants and traders, very few people can recognize the real Basmati varieties. Historically, Basmati rice in India was grown particularly in Haryana and Punjab. In the official gazetteer published by the Govt. of Haryana for the year 1883-84 for the then District of Karnal, Basmati rice is mentioned as a major agriculture product. Subsequently the production of Basmati extended to other areas of Haryana and Punjab as well. The districts presently producing Basmati rice are Karnal, Panipat, Sonepat, Sirsa, Ambala, Kaithal, Kurukshetra and Jind in Haryana; Roop Nagar, Amritsar and Patiala in Punjab and Jammu in J&K.
In the Government of India rules framed by the Ministry of Commerce titled "Export of Basmati Rice (Quality Control & Inspection) Rules 2003", the word 'Oryzasativa' has been called Basmati rice. The following six traditional varieties of basmati in India are notified under the Seeds Act by the Ministry of Agriculture, Government of India:
Basmati 370 - This variety is about 165 cm tall, photo-period sensitive and lodges under high fertility conditions. It does best on average fertility soils. Its grains are superfine, highly aromatic and elongate almost double upon cooking. The cooked rice is non-sticky and soft to eat. It matures in about 150 days. Its average yield is 12 quintals paddy per acre. This variety is sown from mid- June to end June of each year.
Basmati 386 - This variety is about 180 cm tall and is Photoperiod sensitive. It performs best under medium fertility conditions. Its grains are extra-long, superfine and aromatic. Grains elongate almost double on cooking. The cooked rice is non-sticky and soft to eat. It matures in about 155 days from seeding. Its average yield is 9 quintal paddy per acre. This variety is sown from mid-June to end-June of each year.
Type 3 (Pusa Basmati) - This variety is about 1005 cm tall and is Photo-insensitive. It performs best under high fertility soil conditions. Its grains are superfine and elongate well upon cooking. The cooked rice is non-sticky and soft to eat. It matures in 140 days after seeding. It average yield is 16 quintal per acre.
Tarorari Basmati (HBC-19) - This variety is about 115 cm tall and is Photosensitive. It performs best under medium fertility conditions. It possesses extra long super fine grains with excellent cooking quality and strong aroma. The cooked rice is non-sticky and soft to eat. It matures in 145 days after seeding. It average yield is 14 quintal per acre.
Basmati 217 - This variety is about 120 cm tall and is Photo-sensitive. It performs best under medium fertility conditions. It possesses extra long super fine grains with excellent cooking quality and strong aroma. The cooked rice is non-sticky and soft to eat. It matures in 145 days after seeding. It average yield is 14 quintal per acre.
Ranbir Basmati (IET-I, 1348) - It is produced only in the place named Ranbir Singh Pura in District Jammu, and is one of the finest qualities of rice.
Legal protection for basmati - and other GIs from India - will only be obtained when the policies for registration, and the enforcement of protections both take a strong step forward. The basmati experience shows that the system for such protection is still poor, and GIs from India are vulnerable to piracy. The government has yet to play its part in this complex arena; as a result there is no way to be certain that the fine grain on our plates is the genuine article.