PepsiCo in India leads the packaged snack potato chips market with 33% of the volume share and 36% of the value shareholdings of its brand, Lays.1 The company in India works with 24,000 small and marginal farmers under its collaborative farming programme2 and sources 100%3 of its potatoes for Lays from farmers across nine states– West Bengal, Maharashtra, Punjab, Gujarat, Uttar Pradesh, Karnataka, Bihar, Haryana, and Chhattisgarh.
In the year 2017-18, PepsiCo filed lawsuits against five farmers from the state of Gujarat on the charge of infringement on its potato plant variety (FL 2027), which the company has protected under the Protection of Plant Variety and Farmers Rights Act (PPVFR) in 2016. In April 2019, another four farmers from Gujarat were pressed with similar charges. In total, nine small and marginal farmers were sued where the company demanded damages worth Rs. 1 crore from each farmer.
Section 64 of the Act states that a registered plant variety can be cultivated only by registered breeders. In addition, cultivation of the plant variety by anyone else will constitute infringement, thus resulting in penalties. However, Section 39 of the Act works as a protective gear for farmers where the farmer is allowed to save, use, sow, re-sow, exchange, share or sell his farm produce, including seed of the protected variety, and disallows farmers to sell branded seeds where branded seeds is defined as those seeds put in package or any other container and labelled. Further, Section 42 also protects farmers for “innocent infringement” where farmers are not aware about existence of a registration of a particular seed variety.5
Farmers’ Protest – collectivization, media campaign and international pressure
After PepsiCo filed the legal suit for the second time in April 2019, farmers were angry as well as fearful. In the following weeks, they collectivized themselves, attended various meetings called by civil society organisations (CSOs) and lawyers, and raised awareness of their rights and found strength in each other. It began initially with five organisations – Gujarat Khedut Samaj, Jatan Trust, Khedut Ekta Manch, Loknaad, Bhartiya Kisan Sangh (BKS)– which mobilized farming community in Gujarat. The BKS Gujarat chapter became the voice for the farming community. They released an appeal letter and approached the state’s Chief Minister, Nitin Patel, and formally submitted applications on behalf of the civil society, urging the state to intervene.67 They also collectively reached out to the Chairperson, Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers’ Rights Authority (PPVFRA) and the Registrar-General, PPVFRA, in the Ministry of Agriculture and Farmers Welfare, and submitted a letter endorsed by 200 farmer activists and supporters. Later, 30 such organisations8 formed an issue-based forum called the Beej Adhikar Manch (Seed Rights Forum) with an idea of bringing different organisations with varied political and ideological leanings under one umbrella. This politically neutral forum further gave momentum to the campaign as organisations gathered around an issue rather than political ideology. Locally in Gujarat, the forum was spearheaded by founder of advocacy group Jatan Trust, which later reached out to 200 organisations across the country for seeking their support for the issue. 9 At the national level, a press conference was organized by the All India Kisan Sabha in Delhi, which also helped amplifying the issue further.
In July 2019, a people’s conference was organized by the Alliance for Sustainable and Holistic Agriculture (ASHA). It was attended by Intellectual Property Rights (IPR) experts, legal experts and witnessed a wide participation of farmer’s leaders from various states10.
Simultaneously, political pressure also worked in favour of farmers. The Government of Gujarat carried out series of dialogues with PepsiCo and decided to back the farmers11. Along with the state government’s ruling party, Bhartiya Janta Party (BJP), and Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), a wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the opposition party – Indian National Congress (INC) also gave strong statements condemning the action taken by the multinational corporation against marginalized farmers.
On ground, the farming community across India gathered and carried out demonstrations. Some observed sit-ins while others expressed their dissent by burning PepsiCo products, boycotting products by emptying Pepsi cold drink bottles and taking out symbolic funeral processions. In Guntur district of Andhra Pradesh, workers gathered outside the company’s plant and raised slogans;12 in Chennai, the youth joined the farmers to raise slogans13; in Muzzaffarnagar district of Uttar Pradesh, Bhartiya Kisan Union (BKU) staged a dharna (sit in) and burnt PepsiCo products during the protest;14 and, in Eluru district of Andhra Pradesh, people’s organizations and trade unions got together and raised slogans and called upon to boycott Pepsi’s products.15
The on-ground demonstrations and protests were widely covered by mainstream newspapers and television channels. Press conferences planned at the state and national level played a vital role in mobilizing the farming community and raising awareness. Kapil Shah of Jatan Trust shares, “We circulated the press releases to all media houses and independent journalist – approximately 400 of them”.
On social media during the month of April-May 2019, #BoycottPepsi had a significant digital impression, in-turn negatively impacting Pepsi’s brand image. Extensive local and international media coverage, public pressure and a social media campaign pushed PepsiCo’s international offices in New York and Dubai to urge its Indian counterparts to resolve the issue at the earliest16.
Big win – revived discourse and public action
Effective short-term campaign carried between 9 and 26 April 2019 resulted in initial wins for farmers, which eventually compelled PepsiCo to retract the legal suits against the nine farmers on 2 May 2019.17
However, in September 2019, PepsiCo again approached the PPVFR Authority and claimed to be the “holder of certificate of registration for FL-2027, and that it has rights under the Act to pursue necessary actions against individuals and companies alike who infringe its rights.”18 In response to this, advocacy groups called for Potato sowing Satyagraha movement19 in November 2019 where many farmers sowed seeds. This activity was well covered by television and the print media. The idea behind this was to generate mass awareness among farmers that they could sow seeds of their choice and also sell seeds of any variety as long as they were not branded.20
In India, breeders’ rights and farmers’ rights collided in court for the very first time. This resulted in reviving the discussion on the PPVFR Act and farmers’ rights through the exchange of literature, civil society meetings, media engagement, and judicial dialogues.
One such example was the signature campaign by Dr. Suman Sahai of the Gene Campaign,21 which was endorsed by 131 farmers, activists and individuals. A letter to the Ministry of Agriculture & Farmers Welfare raised concerns regarding the content of the Frequently Asked Questions (FAQ) booklet, which is published by the Authority. The letter argued that the interpretation of the PPVFR Act was incorrectly presented, which subsequently compromised the legal rights granted to farmers under this legislation and is more favourable to the industry. As a result of this campaign, the Chairperson of the PPVFR Authority was forced to take cognizance of the matter and respond22.
While farmers have won this legal battle against multinational company, it serves as an eye-opener for plant breeders and farmers across India. The PPVFR provisions safeguards interest of the farmers in India. Thus, it is important for advocacy groups to continue building mass awareness on the provisions of the Act and safeguard them in order to prevent reoccurrences of such incidents in the future.