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Last Updated: Friday, 15 February 2008, 23:57 GMT
India and Pakistan link to protect Basmati
By Shilpa Kannan
Business reporter, BBC World, Amritsar

Lakhvir Singh is supervising the harvest of his basmati rice crop.

Lakhvir Singh
Our traditional knowledge of this soil, climate and crop has helped develop such superior strains of the rice
Lakhvir Singh, rice farmer

As a team of men thrash the paddy on concrete slabs, two women load the produce onto oxen driven carts.

Ten kilometres from the border between India and Pakistan, his lush green fields have a bumper crop.

Grown in the foothills of the Himalayas, this aromatic rice was once known as the food of the emperors.

Basmati is the rice grown exclusively in the upper areas of the Gangetic Plains, on both sides of the border.

Now, to protect the farmers of this region, India and Pakistan have decided to apply for a joint registration of the rice.

It successful, the efforts to gain geographical indication, or GI, status for the rice will have a global impact. India is the largest producer of basmati in the world followed by Pakistan.

American patent

Mr Singh's forefathers used to cultivate basmati well before the partition of the two countries

R. S. Seshadri, director, Tilda
Mr Seshadri says India is ahead of Pakistan

He says the soil across this region is very fertile and the water comes from the melting snow in the mountains.

Farmers from Punjab have developed this rice over generations.

"Our traditional knowledge of this soil, climate and crop has helped develop such superior strains of the rice," says Mr Singh.

"It belongs to us. How can anyone else grow our rice?"

In spite of such sentiments, Basmati rice was threatened when, in September 1997, a small American food technology company called Ricetech patented Kasmati, a new type of basmati rice adapted to grow in American conditions.

The patent was later successfully challenged by the Indian government, but nobody expects that to be the end of it.

The big picture

Farmers like Mr Singh sell their produce to factories that then clean it, polish it and sell it to customers, mainly abroad. More than 80% of the rice grown in India is exported.

Rice farmers
It will be an EU that is growing at 9% to 10%,
Amit Mitra, secretary general of Federation of the Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry

In the Tilda Riceland factory in Haryana, men sit along an assembly line filling 10 pound bags as different varieties of cleaned basmati rice pours down from overhead chutes.

Packaging the long-grained rice for tables across the world, Tilda accounts for 40% of India's export to the EU.

Basmati is fast becoming the dominant rice product in Europe and the Middle East, accounting for more than half of the rice consumed there.

R. S. Seshadri, director of the company, says a geographical indicator status would definitely be beneficial to both the countries.

In the last few years, Indian industry has focused on premium basmati and increased its share in the world market while for Pakistani basmati the share has gone down considerably.

But Mr Seshadri says Pakistan will benefit more because Indian industry and policy makers are far ahead on the curve.

To that extent, Pakistan is slightly behind so any platform which brings about congruence between India and Pakistan for basmati will help Pakistan more, he says, insisting that India is looking at the bigger picture.

Regional trade centre

GI status would prevent other nations from claiming the right to label or patent their rice as basmati.

Scientists are mapping the DNA of basmati rice
Scientists are mapping the DNA of basmati rice

Though it is in the interest of both countries to jointly guard the rice, the process is not as easy.

In essence, India and Pakistan are unable to agree on a definition of what constitutes basmati rice.

Unless such differences are sorted out, it will be tricky to register this premium rice as exclusive to the region.

Indian scientists are mapping the DNA of the basmati rice.

Protecting the rice together may lead to other regional co-operative efforts on similar products like the pashmina wool.

And many in India hope that this would lead to a robust regional trade centre.

Soaring prices

Amit Mitra, secretary general of Federation of the Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry, says that India already has a free trade agreement with Sri Lanka and an excellent business relationship with Bangladesh and almost open borders with Nepal.

Rice farmers
The price of rice has doubled in two years

"What we are left to do is to achieve India-Pakistan and it'll be like a European Union (EU) in very short time," he says. "And it will be an EU that is growing at 9% to 10%, if not more."

That dream may still be a long way off, but this is a step forward.

And as Mr Singh sets off to the main market to sell his produce other farmers join him on the main Amritsar highway.

Overhead direction boards display Lahore at a distance of roughly 50 kilometres.

Farmers here comment that it is harvest time on the other side as well.

This valuable crop bonds not just the farmers but also the traders across the border.

And as basmati prices have more than doubled in the last two years, it may soon bring the sparring neighbours to the peace table.

India Business Report is broadcast repeatedly every Sunday on BBC World.

India rice row
13 Feb 98 |  S/W Asia

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