Being Nice Thru Rice

Recently, in a conversation discussing what India and Pakistan could do together on the economic front, the chief executive of Pakistan’s Trade Development Authority proposed the two countries once again seek a common geographical protection on basmati rice.

Recap: the World Trade Organization provides geographical intellectual property right protection for certain products. Thus it ensures no one can call their sparkling wine “champagne” except those who make stuff in the Champagne region of France.

The Indian and Pakistani Punjab was originally seen as the home of this long-grain aromatic rice. The two countries had once sought to jointly get basmati registered with the WTO as geographically specific to certain parts of their respective countries. Both sides had been rattled by an attempt by a US firm to register a patent for its own hybrid basmati strand.

In the mid-1990s, this joint effort fell apart. I vaguely remember that the Indian side blamed the Pakistanis for trying to tie it to Kashmir or something on those lines. Whoever was to blame, the two went their separate ways when it came to basmati’s geographical protection.

This was unfortunate because it precluded defence through the WTO, easily the most sensible way to do so as it would be global and be defended by a tribunal system with punitive powers.

So basmati protection became and remains a patchwork of local and bilateral agreements, one set by Pakistan and the other by India. It has done well, but India’s Agricultural and Processed Food Export Development Agency spends Rs 40 to 50 million a year defending the sacred name of basmati — most recently against a cafe in Morocco. Presumably some Pakistani agency does the same.

Fortunately the biggest importers of basmati in the world, mainly Persian Gulf Arab states, have local definitions of the rice that all but guarantee most of the global market remains reserved for South Asia.

But this is a piecemeal solution. The WTO would be so much more final. And that would require a common India-Pakistan petition to have basmati listed with the WTO. Also the battle is endless, and you only have to lose once. Tilda, an Indian exporter, nearly lost a case against a Thai firm claiming to grow basmati.

I also think that having a joint definition would help freeze or at least make it more difficult to change the parameters of basmati. Today, at least in India, basmati is said to grow in Rajasthan and Uttar Pradesh. Last year Madhya Pradesh asked for its aromatic rice to be defined as basmati. Bangladesh also claims to grow the stuff.

Adulteration is rampant. A study in the UK in 2005 found half the basmati sampled was, well, not basmati. A new rules regime was put in place, but another survey showed adulteration had only been reduced.

Time for a joint Indo-Pakistani task force to save basmati from others, and each other.

Copyright © 2012 the Hindustan Times.

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