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Tribute: Pirating Seeds – The story of Dadaji Khobragade

Grown over a million acres of farmland, the HMT rice variety – developed by Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade, a small cultivator and self-trained plant breeder – brought a measure of prosperity to several hundred thousand farmers in Maharashtra and neighbouring states. Bharat Mansata pays tribute to the legendary farmer and seed saver who died on Sunday at Gadchiroli.

Tribute to a humble, great Annadata and Beejdata

Bharat Mansata

“Dadaji Khobragade breathed his last at 8 pm,” read farmers’ rights activist Jacob Nellithanam’s message to me a few hours ago.  “… Last rites at his village Nanded on 4th evening.” (Nanded is a Buddhist-Dalit village in Nagbid Tehsil of the eastern Chandrapur District of Maharashtra.)

Bharat Beej Swaraj Manch (India Seed Sovereignty Alliance) pays tribute to this legendary farmer and plant breeder, whose rice varieties brought a measure of prosperity to several hundred thousand farmers in Maharashtra and neighbouring states.

Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade’s journey as a plant breeder began in 1982-83. The highly popular ‘HMT’ – a mildly fragrant, fine grain rice, with good cooking quality – was the first variety he developed. The consumer preference for it soon earned it a price twice that of the rice varieties grown earlier by local farmers. HMT was also well-suited to the agro-ecological conditions in much of the region. Dadaji freely and generously shared its seeds with neighbouring villagers; and in just a few years, it was adopted widely for cultivation.

In the decades following the spectacular success of HMT, Dadaji developed at least 8 more distinct rice varieties, each through careful selection of plants, and re-planting of its seeds over a number of years, till it stabilized in uniformly manifesting its unique traits. These varieties are: DRK, Nanded -92, Nanded Chinoor, Vijay Nanded, Dipak Ratna, Nanded Hira, and Kate HMT (all developed before 2002), followed by DRK-2.

Widely recognized and felicitated, Dadaji Khobragade was a recipient of several dozens of awards, including one from the former President of India, Abdul Kalam. An honoured founder-member of BBSM, and firm believer in its manifesto of seed sovereignty, he was opposed to the privatization of India’s rich heritage of crop diversity through exclusive rights bestowed and certified by India’s PPVFR Authority on plant varieties registered with them.

The Seed Declaration, 2014, adopted by BBSM states:

“Like the earth and the sky, the immense biodiversity of seeds, plants and life forms is our collective heritage, … and it is our duty to preserve them for future generations.  They cannot be seen as mere commodities for corporate profiteering.

We refuse to let our genetic commons and bio-cultural heritage be privatized; and we assert our sovereign rights to freely plant, use, reproduce, select, improve, adapt, save, share, exchange or sell our seeds, without restriction or hindrance, as we have done for past millennia.

… We reject the entire patent and IPR regime on life forms, plant varieties, seeds, and related traditional knowledge; and we urge and resolve the creation of a National Biodiversity Heritage Registry, protected from IPRs, to aid collaborative documentation and sharing of our biodiversity and knowledge.”

Unwell and economically impoverished in his last years, Dadaji was touching 80 when he passed away.

Bharat Beej Swaraj Manch (BBSM) honours, salutes and prays for the peace of this gentle, unassuming great soul, who generously shared the fruits of his painstaking efforts, touching the lives of innumerable farmers.

(Reproduced below is an article on Dadaji Khobragade, an edited version of which was published by ‘The Wire’ in January, 2018.)

Pirating Seeds: the story of Dadaji Khobragade

by Bharat Mansata

Grown over a million acres of farmland, the HMT rice variety – developed by Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade, a small cultivator and self-trained plant breeder – brought a measure of prosperity to several hundred thousand farmers in Maharashtra and neighbouring states.

Khobragade, now aged 78, is from a predominantly Buddhist-Dalit village, Nanded, in Nagbid Tehsil of the eastern Chandrapur District of Maharashtra. The temperature here had already crossed 40 degrees Centigrade when I visited in early April.

Khobragade’s HMT rice is a mildly fragrant, fine grain variety, with good cooking quality, and a flavor reminiscent of the traditionally popular Kolam. The consumer preference for it soon earned it a price twice that of the rice varieties grown earlier by local farmers. HMT was also well-suited to the agro-ecological conditions in much of the region.

I knew Dadaji and his claim to fame. But stepping inside his village house, I did not expect to find the walls of the small front room crammed with awards, certificates and photographs of felicitation ceremonies, including one with the former President of India, Abdul Kalam. When I later commented on all the acclaim he had received, Dadaji smiled shyly. “One hundred and three,” he said. Seeing my puzzled look, he clarified: “That includes all the felicitations and awards.”

A successful farmer-breeder needs to have sharp observational skills, disciplined focus, and years of patience. The story of HMT, Dadaji’s initiation in plant breeding, began around 1982-83, when he noticed that a rice plant in his paddy field was significantly different from all the others. The grains in its panicles were more compactly held. Intuitively, he selected its seeds for careful replanting, repeating the process each season for several years until the variety stabilized in manifesting its unique traits.

The local farmers soon adopted this rice for cultivation. The market needed a name. As HMT watches were then very popular, this was the first name that came to mind, and it stuck. By the nineties, the HMT story was a local legend, and the farmers’ demand for HMT seeds peaking to a clamour.

In 1994, an official from the nearby Sindewahi Rice Station under Punjabrao Krishi Vidyapeeth, PKV, (Agricultural University) at Akola visited Dadaji Khobragade. He carried back with him 5 kg of HMT seeds “for experimentation”, signing a receipt for it. In 1998, the PKV Agricultural University released PKV-HMT rice. It claimed to have ‘purified’ the earlier HMT ‘farmer’s variety’. But it did not publicly acknowledge that it had sourced the seeds from the original breeder, Khobragade himself.

In 2004, an article in ‘The Hindu’ by Meena Menon brought a flood of public recognition to Dadaji Khobragade and his rice breeding work. The first ‘Richharia Samman’ (Award) – instituted in the memory of late Dr RH Richharia, arguably the foremost rice scientist in the world – honoured him for developing HMT and several other rice varieties. Dr Richharia himself had a monumental contribution to conserving rice diversity. He collected 19,000 unique folk varieties of rice from just the state of Madhya Pradesh, which then included a part of Chattisgarh. Over 1600 of these were high-yielding varieties.

Dadaji received a number of awards from the governments of Maharashtra and India. In 2005, the National Innovation Foundation (NIF) honoured Dadaji Khobragade for developing the HMT Paddy variety. It also collected from him the seeds of HMT, DRK, and 7 other distinct rice varieties he had developed till then; and authorizations to register these with PPVFRA (Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority), under the PPVFR Act, 2001.

The application for HMT rice was finally submitted by NIF for registration on 16-1-2008; and the ‘Certification of Registration’ granted on 4-4-2012. Surprisingly, the registration was for ‘Dadaji HMT’ and not simply ‘HMT’, as the variety was well-known, far and wide. Perhaps this was convenient to grant separate registration to ‘PKV-HMT’, essentially the same as the popular HMT variety bred by Khobragade.

A few weeks earlier, on 21-2-12, NIF posted on its website (http://nif.org.in/): “Under the Technology Acquisition Fund (TAF), NIF will obtain the rights of technologies from innovators after compensating them … NIF will then disseminate/diffuse them at low cost or no cost for the larger benefit of the society.” The post adds, “In this meeting (on 21-2-2012), 24 farmers from 8 states, who had developed over 39 improved varieties of 15 crops like paddy, wheat, mustard, bean, pigeon pea, cardamom, pepper, etc. participated, and Rs 13,00,000 (was) disbursed to them from the TAF.”

On 21-2-12, NIF obtained Khobragade’s signature on an ‘e-stamp paper’ document, transferring all his rights (including ‘Intellectual Property Rights’) under PPVFRA certification for the HMT and DRK varieties of paddy to NIF for a combined sum of Rs 1,00,000; ie Rs 50,000 for each variety. The ‘Certificate of Registration’ granted for Dadaji HMT specifies: “exclusive right to produce, sell, market, distribute, import or export the variety; and of authorizing anyone to do so.”

HMT rice was already widely adopted since the nineties. In the past 5 years, it is unclear what NIF has done – and to what effect – to “disseminate/ diffuse (the crop variety) at low/no cost for the larger benefit of society,” as was the claimed intention. And what was the need to acquire exclusive rights over the variety for such purpose?

A paltry sum of Rs 50,000 is at best a token recognition, hardly adequate “compensation” for acquiring all exclusive rights, especially for a variety like HMT with a sale turnover of several thousand crores, each year. Dadaji believes his DRK variety can potentially fetch an even higher price.

Subsequently, NIF advanced Khobragade a loan of Rs 3 lakhs, refundable with 12.5 % interest per annum – for “production and commercialization” of the HMT/DRK varieties. Dadaji repaid Rs 1 lakh. In January 2015, he suffered a cerebral stroke. On 21-5-15, NIF asked him to repay the balance loan which, along with interest till May 2015, amounted to Rs 2,39,147.  Adding to Dadaji’s plight, the monsoon rains that year were poor; consequently, harvests too.

In a severe financial crunch, Dadaji’s son, Mitrajit Khobragade, urged NIF to forego the refund of its loan, or at least the interest on it. He also requested payment of some returns on the rice varieties bred by Dadaji – to meet pressing debts, including medical expenses for his father. In response, NIF suggested the transfer of seed rights to a private commercial company for repaying NIF, and to earn some returns.

As for Khobragade’s DRK rice variety, NIF’s initial application in 2009 (REG/2009/333) for registration with PPVFRA, categorized it as a ‘farmer’s variety’. But after the MOU/document transferring Dadaji’s rights to NIF, it made a fresh/amended application for registering DRK in ‘New category’. This was learnt from PPVFRA’s letter dt 4-3-2016 to NIF, copied to Khobragade, requesting “5 pkts of 100 grams each for second year testing.” As the name DRK itself signifies, it is a distinct variety bred by Dadaji Ramaji Khobragade. But between 2009 and 2016, it is quite possible that the DRK variety may have been registered by anyone with PPVFRA under some other name.

There is no intimation till date from PPVFRA to Khobragade regarding the fate of the other 7 rice varieties submitted on his behalf by NIF for registration with the Authority. These include: Nanded -92, Nanded Chinoor, Vijay Nanded, Dipak Ratna, Nanded Hira, and Kate HMT, all developed by Khobragade before 2002, followed by DRK-2.

This is the sad story of a genuine plant breeder who carefully selects plants for sowing its seeds. He painstakingly continues the process over several further generations – to finally arrive at a “distinct, uniform and stable” variety, only to see it wind its way into the hands of some private company or its agent.

More incredible yet is the plot for privatizing and pirating the seeds ‘commons’ – our collective heritage of hundreds of thousands of crop varieties, selected and bred by countless generations of farmers before us. The privatization follows the same process of some farmer or organization registering these (sometimes unwittingly) with PPVFRA as farmers’ varieties, dubiously claiming that they are the “true breeder” of the concerned variety/varieties, and thereby acquiring exclusive rights, bestowed by the Certificate of Registration. It is estimated that over 700 rice varieties registered by PPVFRA  are of indigenous origin. Numerous native/traditional varieties of other crops have been similarly registered by PPVFRA. While the PPVFR Act recognizes ‘varieties of common knowledge’, the concerned authorities have not even begun the vital process of registering these as a collective heritage, protected from any IPR claims.

The overriding interest of the PPVFR Authority seems to be in a totally different direction. With the stroke of a pen – as the Registrar of Plant Varieties signs a Certificate of Registration for a Farmers’ Variety – a millennia-old collective heritage is privatized; and the path opened for selling exclusive rights to some MNC. Suddenly destroyed too in the new atmosphere riddled with suspicion, is a ten thousand year old tradition of freely sharing seeds out of simple good will.



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