Basmati dispute

Published June 9, 2021

MORE than two decades ago, Pakistan and India had put up a joint front to protect the ownership of their ‘shared heritage’ by fighting an attempt by a US company to get an American strain of rice patented as basmati. The World Trade Organisation decided in their favour, denying the American company’s application. Today, they are at loggerheads over who owns the unique, long-grain aromatic rice grown only in the subcontinent as India has applied for the grant of an exclusive GI (Geographical Indications) tag for its basmati rice at the European Union’s official registry. If India wins this battle, Pakistan would not only lose the large EU market but also find it difficult to export its basmati rice to the rest of the world to the detriment of thousands of farmers and other people associated with the rice trade. At present, Pakistan exports basmati rice worth between $800m and $1bn, controlling almost 35pc of the basmati market share across the world. India, the only other global basmati rice exporter, accounts for the rest of the market.

The EU had given both countries an additional three months until May this year to settle the matter between themselves. The period expired, and India sought another three months for reaching a bilateral settlement of the issue. However, only a few on this side of the border expect a negotiated settlement since the two countries have yet to begin discussing the matter let alone agree on its resolution. This is in spite of the fact that Pakistani basmati farmers and exporters are strongly in favour of the two countries applying for joint ownership of the shared heritage of this region. Although the Pakistani variety of basmati rice has an edge over its Indian counterpart owing to its superior characteristics and better quality, as well as the EU’s pesticide restrictions, some are not ruling out an EU decision in favour of India in case New Delhi declines the proposal for joint ownership of the basmati trademark. Pakistan has diluted its case because we have rebranded our basmati under different nomenclatures, failed to resolve the dispute between growers and exporters over the domestic GI ownership of basmati rice, and delayed GI legislation. Given the implications of an adverse EU decision for basmati farmers and exports, it is imperative that the government and other stakeholders work together as a team to prevent any such outcome.

Published in Dawn, June 9th, 2021

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