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The Delhi High Court has set aside Central Government’s decision to restrict the production of Basmati rice to certain regions in the Indo-Gangetic plain.
It has also struck down the decision to restrict the registration of Basmati varieties for certified and foundation seeds to areas under the Geographical Indication (GI) for Basmati rice i.e certain areas in the Indo-Gangetic plain.
This geographical area in the Indo-Gangetic region spans across the states and territories of Punjab, Haryana, Himachal Pradesh, Delhi, Uttarakhand, Western Uttar Pradesh, and the Jammu and Kathua districts of Jammu & Kashmir.
The judgment was passed by a Single Judge Bench of Justice Vibhu Bakhru in a petition by the State of Madhya Pradesh. The State had challenged two Office Memorandums (OMs) dated May 29, 2008 and February 7, 2014, passed by the Ministry of Agriculture. It had also assailed a letter dated May 5, 2016, issued by the Ministry.
The first OM set forth the standards of the “Basmati” variety of rice while stating that only Basmati varieties which are grown in the Indo-Gangetic region would qualify for such description. The second OM issued a direction to ensure that the registration of Basmati varieties for certified and foundation seeds is not undertaken outside the geographical area detailed under the Geographical Indication (GI)for Basmati rice.
Subsequently, the letter withdrew the allocation of Basmati seeds to the petitioner state during the Kharif-2016 season, as it was not part of the area under Geographical Indication for Basmati.
Arguing before the High Court, Madhya Pradesh contended that the two OMs and the letter fell outside the scope of the Seeds Act, 1966. It was also contended that the OMs encroached upon the power of the State to pass laws in relation to agriculture, which is a State subject in terms of the Seventh Schedule of the Constitution. It was further stated that the OMs and the letter encroach into the statutory field of the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999.
The Centre, on the other hand, defended the OMs and the letter on the ground that they were passed in pursuance of Sections 3(5), 5 and 7(d) of the Seeds Act, 1966 which empowered it to declare the features of the Basmati variety seed and the trade, quality and restrictions with respect to its geographical region.
It was additionally claimed that the first OM was issued on the recommendations made by the Sub-Committee of the Central Seeds Committee. The recommendations were made within the scope of Section 3 of the Act. The same were then accepted by the Central Government in exercise of its executive powers under Article 77(3) of the Constitution of India.
Agreeing with Madhya Pradesh, the Court held that it was difficult to accept that the source of authority for the OMs could be traced to the Seeds Act, especially Section 3(5). After perusing the scheme of the Act, the Court observed that the scope of the Act was limited to regulating the business of seeds of notified kinds or varieties.
It noted that apart from Section 6, which empowers the Central Government to specify the minimum limits of germination and purity of a seed, there was no other provision that enables the Centre to set any benchmark or standard for seeds of any notified kind or variety.
“The Seeds Act is not concerned with where and how the seeds are used. Once a person dealing with notified variety of seeds conforms to the requirement of Section 7 of the Seeds Act, there is no restriction as to where and how the crop is to be grown. The Seeds Act is limited to ensuring that the seeds available to farmers conform to the minimum limits of germination and purity and the marks or label affixed thereon correctly indicate so.”
Further discussing the role and function of the Central Seed Committee, the Court observed that it acts in an advisory capacity to the Central Government and the State Governments with respect to matters arising out of the administration of the Seeds Act and/or other functions that are specified under the Seeds Act. The Central Seeds Committee cannot exercise any other function, the Court said.
Any advice or recommendation made by the Central Seeds Committee outside the scope of its functions, and role as specified under the Seeds Act and its Rules would be wholly without jurisdiction and the authority of law, it added.
The Court, therefore, rejected the Centre’s reliance on the advice/recommendations made by the Central Seeds Committee to justify the OMs and the letter.
“..the import of OM-I is to restrict Basmati production to only regions in the Indo-Gangetic plain. OM-I, apart from specifying the characteristics of Basmati rice,seeks to ascribe a Geographical Indication to the said variety(ies). This is, clearly, outside the scope of the Seeds Act… The import of OM-II is to restrict the area of production of seeds, which is wholly outside the scheme of the Seeds Act.
The clear object is to ensure that the crop of Basmatirice is only grown in specified areas. This would not only be outside the scope of the Seeds Act but ‒ as rightly pointed out by the learned counsel for the petitioner ‒ relates to the field of agriculture, which is a state subject.”
The Court also dismissed the contention that the OMs were justified in terms of Article 73 of the Constitution of India. In terms of proviso to Article 73(1) of the Constitution, the executive powers of the Union do not extend to matters in respect of which the legislature of the State also has the power to make laws, it said.
“This contention is, clearly, an afterthought and there is no averment to this effect in the counter affidavit filed by respondent No.1. Secondly, as rightly pointed out by the learned counsel for the petitioner, the legislative competence for enacting the Seeds Act is traceable to Entry 33 of List III of the Seventh Schedule to the Constitution of India.”
The Court thus set aside the OMs and the letter issued pursuant to them.
It has, however, clarified that the question whether rice grown outside the specified regions of the Indo-Gangetic plain can be termed as Basmati, is a matter which squarely falls within the scope of the GI Act and does not have any bearing on the quality of the seeds.
Moreover, the Court noted a September 18, 2017 notification by the Centre under Section 5 of the Seeds Act, which restricted the seed production of Basmati varieties of rice to the rice growing areas of Indo-Gangetic plains and iterated that it was not expressing any opinion on it.
“It will be open for the petitioner to challenge the same, in accordance with law.”
State of Madhya Pradesh was represented by Advocates J Sai Deepak and Ashutosh Nagar.
Centre was represented by ASG Sanjay Jain with Standing Counsel Rakesh Kumar.
Read the Judgment: