Need Assurance That We Won’t Be Sued Again: Gujarat Potato Farmers

Gujarat govt, after making itself a mediator in this controversy, has not consulted the farmers sued by PepsiCo.

5 min read
Image used for representational purposes.

After PepsiCo decided to withdraw cases filed against potato farmers in Gujarat, one would assume that dust has settled on the matter once and for all.

Instead, potato farmers are still fuming because the state government did not consult them or the cultivators before meeting PepsiCo and arriving at a settlement.

“The Gujarat government, after making itself a mediator in this controversy, has not consulted the farmers sued by PepsiCo and has not involved any farmers’ organisations in the discussions it is holding with PepsiCo India.”
Joint statement issued by Beej Adhikar Manch.
Eventually on Monday, 6 May, PepsiCo withdrew one case filed against potato farmers Fulchandbhai Kachchhawa and Sureshbhai Kachchhawa at the Deesa court in Banaskantha district.

However, the sued farmers not only want an unconditional withdrawal of the cases but also an assurance from PepsiCo that they will not pursue litigation against farmers in the state in the future.


Bone of Contention

The farmers are worried as an ‘English daily’ Indian Express reported that the state government will persuade farmers to stop growing the ‘Protected Variety of Potato’ (PVP) claimed by PepsiCo or persuade farmers to sell the produce only to the company.

In all, 11 farmers from Banaskantha, Sabarkantha and Aravalli districts were sued by the company for allegedly growing the PVP across 35-40 acres of land spread in the the three districts.

Among the 11 farmers, four have claimed that they got the seeds from farmer communities and were sowing the same for the last four years. In fact, they never had a contractual agreement with the company.

As per the contract with the company, PepsiCo buys potatoes with a diameter of 45 mm and above; smaller potatoes are stored for sowing in the future.

The Quint spoke with Bipin Patel, a potato farmer from Sabarkantha district, who was also sued by PepsiCo for Rs 1.05 crore.

“Pepsi claims that we have infringed their IPR. According to the company we can only purchase the seeds from them and sell the produce only to them. However, we got the seeds from other farmers who had earlier produced the same variant of the potato. I personally didn’t know that Pepsi had a right on the potato.”
Bipin Patel, potato farmer in Sabarkantha.

In fact, earlier in January a few agents sent by the company visited Patel’s farms, claiming that they would like to buy his potatoes. However, he refused to sell his produce as he doesn’t deal with strangers, to avoid credit defaults.

“They came back two weeks later and said that they will pay in advance. They came to inspect the farms and asked questions about the variety of potatoes we grew. I told them quite candidly that I got the seeds from a farmer who is a friend and I don’t know where he got the seeds from. To be honest, it is quite stressful to be sued for Rs 1.05 crore, that too by the world’s largest beverage company.”
Bipin Patel, potato farmer in Sabarkantha.

In order to avoid such litigation in the future some 25 major farmers' bodies including Bharatiya Kisan Sangh (BKS) along with activists and NGOs have decided to form a central body, Seed Sovereignty Forum also known as Beej Adhikar Manch, to protect farmers' rights to seeds.


Crux of PepsiCo’s Litigation

The suits filed by PepsiCo specifically concerns a potato variety with the denomination of FL-2027 (also known as FC-5 Potato), for which the company has obtained exclusive PVP rights in India in 2016, valid till 2031.

In its lawsuit PepsiCo has invoked Section 64 of the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Right Act, 2001 (PPV & FR Act, 2001) which talks about infringement.

PepsiCo has alleged infringement, claiming that the farmers are neither the ‘breeders’ of the variety registered under this Act nor a registered agent or registered licensee of that variety. Therefore, they cannot sell, export, import or produce such variety without the breeder’s permission.

However, the farmers’ counsel, Anand Yagnik, has contested PepsiCo’s claims, invoking Section 39(iv) of the PPV & FR Act, which protects the farmers using varieties of seeds protected under the act.

Under Section 39 (iv) a farmer is 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 Act was implemented. However, the farmer is not entitled to sell the branded seed of a variety protected under this Act.

Chhabil Patel, one of the farmers in Sabarkantha sued by PepsiCo, used rejected potatoes as seeds – a common practice in villages. Although PepsiCo has declared that they will withdraw the cases against all farmers, Patel told The Quint he is yet to receive an official word from the company or the court.

“PepsiCo takes only large-size potatoes, while small potatoes are discarded. Such rejected stock is available everywhere. We sowed only those potatoes. We have now realised that even the law allows us to do so.”
Chhabil Patel, potato farmer.

Protecting Farmers

PepsiCo took the decision to withdraw the cases after meeting senior officials from the Gujarat government including Chief Secretary J N Singh and Additional Chief Secretary of the Agriculture Department Sanjay Prasad on 3 May.

The duo met representatives PepsiCo India, led by the company’s Vice President (Snacks Category) Jagrut Kotecha.

Yagnik suspects that PepsiCo took the decision in light of the ongoing Lok Sabha Elections, and told The Quint that unless there is a written assurance from PepsiCo, the farmers can be dragged to court again.

“Once the elections are over, PepsiCo could file cases against farmers over some other variety of potato. We understand what is at stake for the breeder (PepsiCo), however, there should be a clear demarcation between commercial farmers and subsistence farmers. The former cultivates in huge swathes of land while the latter farms for his existence. We are trying to protect these farmers. Therefore, the assurance is a must.”
Anand Yagnik, counsel for potato farmers.

The state government has insisted that representatives from PepsiCo met with government officials only to apprise them about the unconditional withdrawal of cases against farmers.

“It is difficult for us to give any assurances at this point on whether any litigation will be filed in the future, as it is a bilateral agreement between the farmers and the company. However, we have suggested that we can establish a tri-partite agreement at district and taluka levels with farmers and the company.”
JN Singh, Chief Secretary, Gujarat.

(With inputs from PTI)

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