The thorn buds

Tuesday 31 March 1998

Parisians see red and intercept a consignment of Indian roses meant to reach French women on Valentines day, turning it into a thorny issue

Was it a case of the green-eyed monster? On Valentine's day French authorities decided to blow away a consignment of Indian roses meant for women in France. The reason behind the action claim French authorities is violation of breeders' rights by Bangalore based floriculturists in India.

It all happened in Paris. Thousands of 'counterfeit' roses were seized at Charles de Gaulle airport even as rose exports from India on Valentine's day crossed the 1,000-tonne mark. This was for the first time that a consignment of flowers was seized at an international airport.

Despite their reputation for being hot-headed, it is not like the French to blow up an issue out of all proportion till it ultimately explodes in the face of Indian traders. Perhaps they felt it would be better to nip the situation in the bud, rather than let it grow into a blooming nuisance.

At the centre of French attention is the Gala Rose, a long-stemmed thornless variety, which makes an ideal gift on Valentine's day. Therefore there is a great demand for these flowers and they have to be imported from India and Africa. According to T V Reddy, a Bangalore-based floriculturist, each plant of the Grand Gala Rose commands a price of Rs 70. Buyers have to pay 30 per cent royalty to the owner of the patent who is based in Paris.

These plants, however, can be easily multiplied without the knowledge of patent owners. According to a senior floriculturist, each plant can be bought for Rs 20 in the local market if the patent laws are evaded. Around 70,000 plants can be grown in an hectare of land, which means evasion of royalty to the tune of Rs 14 lakh in a single hectare of rose cultivation.

Patent violations have therefore been going on for quite some time. Over 100 hectares of land is being used for culti-vation in Bangalore. There are six major companies - Harrison Universal Flowers, Kasturi floritech, Crystal Agritech, ccl Flowers, Sachin Floritech and Pushpam Florabase-based in and around Bangalore.

These patent violations have therefore been causing a lot of concern in Europe for long. It seems the French action was preceded by notices to all floriculturists in Karnataka by European breeders warning them of legal action against patent violations.

Describing the incident as unfortunate the President of the South India Floriculture Association (sifa) has said the Association plans to conduct an inquiry into the incident and see what best can be done to control the damage. In the process the Indian floriculture industry is coming in for a lot of flak.

What is being swept under the carpet during this entire self flagellation exercise by sifa and like-minded organisations and persons is the broader question of respect for the pro-perty of others, whether it is intellectual property or inherited property.

The west has a history of having partaken of the fruits of the knowledge of local communities in the countries they colonised. They used and misused this knowledge to their benefit. Was any royalty paid to the Native Americans for chocolate or tobacco? The potato also came from the New World. Today it is Europe's staple food.

If one were to calculate the royalty to be paid to the Native Americans on just the potato by the rest of the world and then add the interest on payments due since the time the potato was brought to Europe it would amount to billions of dollars.

While these arguments can be brushed aside on the ground that there were no patents then let us see what is happening in the world today. It is possible for attempts to be made to patent turmeric in the us or a variety of basmati rice. Today western researchers are doing their very best to raid bio-resources in the Third World.

When it hurts European interests the French get hot under the collar, but expect the native Asian to be cool and indifferent when plunder is committed in their forest and their natural wealth winds up in European laboratories to fuel the programmes of food manufacturing and pharmaceutical companies.

It is also high time Asian governments wake up to the threats to their treasure trove of biodiversity. It is time that they too begin to talk tough against bio-pirates. For what will happen eventually is that these products will end up being either genetically modified and patented abroad or crossbred and patented. And then to consume which was once something specific to Asia, Asians will have to pay royalty.

The war over roses has just begun, it has wider ramifi-cations. It will create problems for the Indian floriculture industry, at a time when the eyes of the entire world are focused on the rapid growth of this business in India.

The French action has a lesson for India and the rest of the world. It is time to get tough on property rights, including intellectual property rights, everywhere. It is also time to safeguard the national heritage bequeathed to each country by nature, for the present generation does not own these resources it is merely holding them in safe custody for future generations.

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