A rice by another name

THAILAND is all set to drag the us government to the dispute settlement panel of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) for letting Rice Tec, the Texas-based seed company, use the name "jasmati" as a trademark for selling a variety of rice. The US company perhaps wants to mislead consumers into believing that the product is similar to Thailand's famous jasmine rice.

Jasmine rice is Thailand's prime export commodity. More than five million farmers earn their bread by cultivating it. Rice Tec has no business encroaching on their territories, say the authorities in Bangkok. They want to settle the issue at the WTO to gain long term relief. And they are hoping to woo India and Pakistan to join ranks with them to build up a strong front against the marauding seed sharks.

Both India and Pakistan are already struggling separately to build up cases against Rice Tec ever since the company was granted patent on "new lines and grains" of basmati by the us patent office. Exporters in both the countries were equally apprehensive about Rice Tech pushing itself into a market which, they felt, should belong exclusively to traders from the subcontinent.

Early this year there was talk of India and Pakistan jointly applying for revocation of the basmati patent at the US patent office. But then bureaucrats in Delhi and Islamabad found it impossible to work together, even on a trade issue. The Pakistanis were heard grumbling about the Indians being "reluctant" to co-operate with them for diplomatic reasons. The Indian officials excused themselves by saying that they would begin discussions with the Pakistanis only after they had finalised their line of defence. Result: both governments are still floundering with their respective "lines" and no application has reached the us patent office yet.

Perhaps Thailand will be able to carry these two reluctant allies along with it, and approach the WTO with at least a semblance of a united front. This is of vital importance as it has been shown earlier that the international community responds promptly and positively to demands made by the South when they act as a group. To take an example, when the us imposed a ban on export of shrimps from countries like India, Pakistan, Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines on the ground that the trawlers used to catch shrimps were destroying Olive Ridley turtles and should therefore be fitted with turtle excluder devices, the affected nations lodged a joint complaint with the WTO. The ban was not in conformity with the multi-lateral trade pact, they protested. The WTO upheld their stand in its preliminary report and the US was instructed to drop the ban. Of course, the US later challenged the decision and the battle is still on. But the shrimp-exporting nations have won the first round. So if Rice Tec and the us government are to be thwarted, Thailand has undoubtedly hit on the most effective strategy - joint action.

It has also chosen the right forum as the WTO has specific provisions for dealing with such cases. The existing intellectual property rights regime under the WTO acknowledges the claim of a region over products that are associated in a "special and specific" way only with that region. The Trade Related Intellectual Property Rights, or the TRIPS chapter of the WTO, in a clause named "geographical indication" offers proprietary rights to a specific geographical area over products associated with it. The clause has been used very effectively by European nations in the past to preserve their monopoly over speciality products like champagne and Scotch whisky.

The Indian, Pakistani and Thai governments can together effectively thwart Rice Tec by claiming that basmati rice is as exclusively associated with India and Pakistan and jasmine rice with Thailand as champagne and Bordeaux wines are with France.

But there is a catch. To invoke the geographical indications clause the prosecuting nations must prove that they have a Geographical Appellation Act operating within their territories. TRIPS does not require protection of geographical indications that are not protected in their country of origin. The Indian ministry of commerce is still dawdling over this Act and Thailand has only just begun to explore this option. So, in their present state of unpreparedness, the countries in question will achieve nothing by taking the issue to the WTO.

India is hopelessly trailing on the legal front. In the last two years, successive governments have not been able to take any decision on restructuring the outdated Indian Patent Act. And the two crucial legislations that could have provided India firm legal ground to take on Rice Tec are yet to be enacted. These are the National Biodiversity Legislation which could be used to assert the sovereign authority of the government over all the genetic resources found within its territory; and the Plant Varieties' Protection Act which would have given legal protection to basmati rice cultivators in India. Neither Thailand nor Pakistan is better off.

The countries in the South must first get their act straight if they are serious about taking on formidable competitors in the international arena.