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Hard Look: Hot Potato

Amid the ongoing controversy that erupted with PepsiCo India’s lawsuits against 11 farmers for growing its patented potato variety, The Indian Express meets the affected farmers to find the genesis of the problem .

Written by Sohini Ghosh |
Updated: May 6, 2019 2:09:19 am
gujarat, gujarat farmers, potato, potato farmers, pepsico india, indian express PepsiCo India slapped lawsuits against 11 farmers for “illegally” growing its patented potato variety.

Among the 11 farmers of Gujarat who have been slapped lawsuits by PepsiCo India for “illegally” growing its patented potato variety FL 2027, are Fulchand Kachchhawa and his brother Suresh of Malgadh village in Deesa taluka of Banaskantha. The brothers own nearly 50 acres of land in the district, besides two cold storages and are directors in a Deesa-based potato chips company, Tirupati Balaji Chips Potato, a local ostensible rival of PepsiCo’s Lay’s chips.

“We grow a lot of varieties of potato in our fields — Badshah, Locker, Lady Rosetta. Actually, we don’t depend on just one variety. We were not aware of any of this (patented variety of potato),” says Fulchand as he shows his field where muskmelon and millet have been sown after the potato harvest this Spring. “It was only when we received the (legal) notice on April 22, we got to know about the lawsuit (filed by the PepsiCo),” he adds, refusing to show the legal notice served to him and his brother.

In its lawsuits that PepsiCo India has now announced to withdraw, it had sought damages ranging from Rs 20 lakh to Rs 1.05 crore from the 11 farmers.

But Kachchhawas, who have seen their family’s land holding grow exponentially in the last two decades, are not small and marginal farmers whose incomes are dependent on the vagaries of the market. Fulchand had a collaborative farming arrangement with PepsiCo India in 2007 for ATL (Atlantic) variety which was then used by the company for making chips, and had grown their potato seeds over an area of 4 to 5 acres back then he says. “The approximate yield was 14-15 tonnes per acre of which nearly 15-20% of the entire crop produced was rejected by the PepsiCo as it did not match the company’s quality parameters,” he says, asserting that since then they had no tie-up with the Indian subsidiary of the US food giant.

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Fulchand says that now he grows potatoes and sells them in the open market or to local Indian chips companies and all his potato seeds are sourced from Punjab. “Last season, we brought ATL (Atlantic) variety seeds from Punjab. FC 5 (the common named used for PepisCo’s patented potato variety FL 2027) and ATL appear the same. That apart, we brought Locker, Pukhraj potato varieties. We don’t have any informal arrangement, we always procure seeds from our designated source,” he says as he accused PepsiCo of “monopolising the market” and defends Tirupati Balaji Chips company, in which he has a stake. “Indian (chips-making) companies give good rates to farmers. To ensure that PepsiCo doesn’t have to pay a higher price than what it pays currently, they have used this tactic. Say for Tirupati Balaji, they have verbal arrangement of potato procurement at the market rate with a condition that they won’t pay less than what PepsiCo will pay them. It is advantageous for the farmer because if the price climbs up, they will get the market rate and if the potato price crashes, they will still get more than the PepsiCo rate. There is a minimum support price too,” adds Fulchand whose two-storeyed residence is surrounded by the 150-acre land owned by him and his brothers.

“I believe across Gujarat, PepsiCo at present procures approximately 30,000 – 40,000 tonnes via contract farming. They have this kind of contractual arrangement in Punjab, Maharashtra and West Bengal as well,” he says.

The five medium farmers in Aravalli against whom PepsiCo India have filed lawsuits, however, have other concerns. While some spoke of MNCs being too conformist, thus not covering the farmer in the case of a bad season, others spoke out against the registered FL 2027 or FC 5 variety, as economically unviable.

Jeetu Patel of Vadagam village in Dhansura taluka of Aravalli district, says that his brother, Chandrakant, had an arrangement with PepsiCo in 2016-17 and 2017-18, wherein the FC 5 variety would be grown in three acres of the total four hectares that he has. “But then in April last year, I received a notice and a pen drive containing a sting operation purportedly carried out by PepsiCo. Upon recollection, I realised four to five men had come asking us about our potatoes when I was managing the field on behalf of my brother. They probably thought I am illegally growing FC 5,” he says.

After they received the legal notice in April 2018, Jeetu and his brother refused to have any contractual arrangement with PepsiCo India. However, Jeetu says that even at the time of the agreement, they were never in direct contact with any PepsiCo India officials. “There were vendor agents — Tulsi Patel from Shreeji Corp in Modasa and Jeetesh Patel from Laxmi Cropcare. They were the ones who would provide us with the seeds and collect the produce.”

Jeetu, whose mainstay being an electrical repair business, argues against the FC 5 variety in defence of Lady Rosetta tuber. “A packet of seed for FC 5 costs say Rs 1,450. One acre would roughly require 22 packets. In addition, there are middlemen — if you can’t pay the entire amount in cash, they will levy extra charge per packet, that they will deduct from the farmer’s payment at the time of collecting the produce. On the other hand, a packet of Lady Rosetta seeds costs around Rs 800-1,000 per packet. Even in terms of produce sell, one gets paid say Rs 182 per 20 kg of FC 5 vis-à-vis Rs 200 per 20 kg of Lady Rosetta,” adds Jeetu, who has one hectare of land to his name and grows only two crops — groundnut sown in June and harvested by October, and potato sown in November and harvested by March.

The four farmers of Sabarkantha district also say they were not aware of the “intellectual proprietorship” over the FL 2027 variety of potato. “We were never aware of this variety or that PepsiCo has intellectual proprietorship over it. We have our known groups and farmer communities in north Gujarat where we exchange seeds. I believe we have been sowing this variety perhaps for the last four years or so, although there is no definite way to tell since one can not differentiate between the various varieties. We don’t have any contractual agreement anywhere else either and sell our produce in the APMC market,” says Chhabil Patel, who owns two acres of land at Badolkampa village of Vadali taluka in Sabarkantha district.

Chhabil along with Bipin Patel, Vinod Patel and Hari Patel, have been sued by the Indian subsidiary of US food and beverages giant of Rs 1.05 crore each.

According to Kavitha Kuruganti of Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA), a countrywide network of more than 400 farmer rights organisations, it is very essential that farmers should have the rights over crop seeds. “If farmers don’t have control over seeds, they can’t sow what they want to. This is especially pertinent given the dependency on and erratic nature of rains… India had designed a sui-generis law PPV&FR Act, 2001 – in compliance with the WTO’s TRIPS Agreements, as signed in 1995. As per this Act, farmers’ rights were prioritised and was essentially tailored for farmers’ free access to seeds, which is very important,” says Kuruganti.

After bringing in the patented FL 2027 to India, PepsiCo India has registered the variety under the PPV&FR Act, 2001.

Meanwhile, as the Gujarat government enters into negotiations with PepsiCo India to resolve the dispute, lawyer Anand Yagnik, who is representing farmers of Sabarkantha in the court, feels that keeping away the affected farmers from the talks could be damaging. “The ongoing discussion between the Gujarat government and PepsiCo India lacks transparency. This will only create further doubts in the minds of farmers. The cases need to be withdrawn first, which hasn’t been done yet,” he says.

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