The Madras High Court is currently hearing a dispute as to whether rice grown in certain areas of Madhya Pradesh qualify as genuine basmati rice under the law. The disagreement originates from a 2008 application filed by the Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority, or APEDA, under the Geographical Indications of Goods Act, 1999, seeking to register the term “basmati” as a geographical indication. A geographical indication, or GI, is a form of recognition granted to a particular product grown or manufactured in a particular region, whose specific properties are considered attributable to the conditions of its place of origin, or whose reputation is associated with it. Historically, basmati rice, famed for its distinctive aroma, taste and long grains, has been marketed as a set ofrice varieties grown in the foothills of the Himalayas. In its application, the APEDA, which functions under the ministry of commerce, listed only certain areas of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Uttarakhand, Uttar Pradesh, and Jammu and Kashmir as basmati-growing areas.
The state of Madhya Pradesh has argued that the same rice varieties grown as basmati in the areas listed by the APEDA are just as good when grown in certain parts of the state, and so deserve to bear the “basmati” title. In December 2013, the Madhya Pradesh government and stakeholders from the state successfully opposed the APEDA application before the Geographical Indication Registry, the recognising authority for all GIs in the country, but faced a setback upon appeal before the Intellectual Property Appellate Board. The IPAB, in a decision issued this February, asked the GI registry to accept the APEDA application, and also ordered the registry to re-evaluate the evidence submitted to it by stakeholders from Madhya Pradesh before passing a reasoned order on whether parts of the state could be included as basmati-growing areas as well. It is this IPAB decision that the state of Madhya Pradesh has challenged before the Madras High Court.
India’s GI legislation was inspired by European law, which stridently defends claims to specific labels by regional growers and manufacturers. One popular example of a product with a GI is champagne: only wine made of grapes grown in the Champagne region of France may bear this name. But as the case before the Madras High Court shows, there are numerous fundamental issues with India’s approach to protecting agricultural GIs, raising questions of scientific ethics and farmers’ rights, and particularly of who may claim and control GIs for region-specific products.