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PepsiCo offers out of court settlement to farmers it sued

The company had filed the cases on Bipin Patel, Chhabil Patel, Vinod Patel and Hari Patel - small farmers in the state’s Sabarkantha district - on April 5. 

Written by Sohini Ghosh | Ahmedabad |
Updated: April 27, 2019 7:47:51 am
The four farmers — Hari Patel, Bipin Patel, Chhabil Patel and Vinod Patel — outside the Ahmedabad court, Friday. Express Photo

PepsiCo India Holdings, the Indian subsidiary of US food and beverages giant, on Friday offered out of court settlement to the four farmers of Sabarkantha district against whom it has slapped lawsuits, demanding Rs 1.05 crore from each of them as “damages” for allegedly growing and selling a potato variety registered under its name.

On April 5, PepsiCo India had slapped lawsuits of Rs 1.05 crore on each of the four small farmers — Bipin Patel, Chhabil Patel, Vinod Patel and Hari Patel — of Sabarkantha district, alleging that the farmers were “illegally” growing and selling FL-2027, commonly known as FC 5, potato variety, without the company’s permission.

The company claimed that it has exclusively registered the potato variety under its name under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Act, 2001. The variety is used by the company for making potato chips of Lay’s brand.

During the hearing at the commercial court here on Friday, PepsiCo India suggested that either the four farmers give an undertaking declaring that they would not use the particular potato variety anymore without the company’s permission, or they could sign an agreement on a buyback system — purchase the specific variety of seeds from the company and thereafter sell the potato produced to it.

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The cases and the counter

In the first such case, PepsiCo India has sued at least 11 farmers from potato-growing region of north Gujarat, alleging that they are growing ‘FL-2027’ potato “without permission”. The company says it is the registered breeder, under provisions of Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights (PPV&FR) Act, 2001. Cases have been filed in at least three civil courts in Gujarat since 2018. Farmer unions and NGOs organisations counter that the Act protects rights of farmers as much as breeders, and have sought withdrawal of all cases against the farmers.

Senior counsel Anand Yagnik, who appeared for the four affected farmers, told the court he would discuss the settlement proposal with the farmers and inform the court about the outcome during the next hearing, which has been scheduled for June 12.  “Let us see what are their terms of the settlement. We will file a written reply accordingly,” Yagnik told mediapersons after the court hearing.

Later in the day, PepsiCo India issued a statement, saying it has proposed to the farmers that they may become part of its collaborative potato farming programme. “PepsiCo India has proposed to amicably settle with people who were unlawfully using seeds of its registered variety. PepsiCo has also proposed that they may become part of its collaborative potato farming program. This programme gives them access to higher yields, enhanced quality, training in best-in-class practices and better prices. In case, they do not wish to join this programme, they can simply sign an agreement and grow other available varieties of potatoes,” the statement issued by the company said.

Justifying the filing of the lawsuits against the farmers, PepsiCo India said, “The company was compelled to take the judicial recourse as a last resort to safeguard the larger interest of thousands of farmers that are engaged with its collaborative potato farming program. PepsiCo India remains deeply committed to resolving the matter and ensuring adoption of best farming practices.”

Meanwhile, the court extended the injunction granted against the four farmers on April 8, disallowing them from growing or selling the particular potato variety, FL-2027, till June 12, the next date of hearing.

Earlier the court had appointed a court commissioner to investigate the matter.

The court had ordered lawyer Paras Sukhwani to “prepare the inventory of potatoes lying in the premises of the farmers”, and collect the samples and send them for analysis to a government laboratory — ICAR and Central Potato Research Institute, Shimla. The court had also directed Sukhwani to submit his report within a week and to “conduct videography and photography of the proceedings of execution of commission”.

‘We were not aware of intellectual property issue till we got court notice’

The four farmers of Sabarkantha district who have been sued by PepsiCo India for allegedly growing a “registered” potato variety on Friday said they were not aware of the “intellectual proprietorship” over it.

“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,” said Chhabil Patel, who owns two acres of land at Badolkampa village of Vadali taluka.

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 Chhabil, he came to know about the potato variety on April 11 when he received the court notice. “We received a court notice along with a pen drive that contained videographic evidence of the sting operation,” he said.

Bipin Patel, who owns around four acres at Lamanpurakampa village, said, “We received a call sometime around January 15 this year from an unknown buyer. He said he’ll pay Rs 260 for 20 kg of potatoes, instead of Rs 200-210 per 20 kg market price. I refused his offer because we don’t sell to unknown buyers, as we end up facing troubles with payment. The buyer insisted that he will meet us. Three to four persons turned up on my farm on January 29. They didn’t buy, but we saw in the sting operation videos, which they had submitted in the court,had our farms in the backdrop.”

Calling the “sting video” as infringement of privacy rights, the farmers’ lawyers, Anand Yagnik, said, “They used private detectives, who came disguised as buyers and procured potatoes from the farmers’ farms.”

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