Rights Awareness of Rural and Adivasi Communities

Gene Campaign’s Right’s Awareness activity brings information to marginalize rural and adivasi communities. Communities are informs about their legal rights, entitlements and relevant government programmes that can empower them and safeguard their interests especially relating to use of land, their indigenous knowledge and biological resources.


The background to this effort goes back to the early 1990s, when patenting of plant varieties, seeds and life forms was proposed during the Uruguay round of talks of the GATT/ WTO.

It was Gene Campaign that spearheaded the national campaign to stop the government from accepting seed patents and pointed out that it was possible to pass national laws that would while being compliant with international obligations in the WTO would still protect the interests of India’s bioresources and Farmers’ rights over seed. Subsequently, a series of national legislation were enacted to safeguard farmers’s rights and India’s bioresources.

Having succeeded in getting these legislations passed—in many of these enactments adivasi and farming communities have been given certain rights over their bioresources such as seeds—what was needed was to pass on the information of the benefits and provisions of these laws to the very people they were made for.

Gene Campaign’s Position

It feels that adivasi and poor farming families would be greatly empowered if they knew about their rights and entitlements, the means to access them and also ways to seek redressal if they are denied to them. This information would also help them recognise and confront phenomena like biopiracy and empower them to claim their share when their seeds or other economically valuable bioresources are commercialised.

Rights awareness activities

In rural and tribal villages given that a majority of the farmers are still illiterate, Gene Campaign uses multi media communication to share information with the people.

Simple literature is prepared in regional languages explaining the legislation, their rights as contained in it, recent developments and their impact. Booklets, posters, handbills and flyers, use visuals local idiom and examples to explain new and often alien concepts such as patents and intellectual property rights, and the impact of agricultural imports.

Early on it was understood that creative methods would have to be used—other than training workshops —if the information was to be understood and acted upon by the community. While meetings continue to be part of the package of interaction with communities, the approach of meetings has been modified. Audio-visual materials have replaced lectures, and issue-based plays are used to both educate and entertain. Street theatres (nukkad nataks) are written by the youth from the community who are trained by Gene Campaign on the issues. These plays because they use local context and associations have been successful demystifying confusing technical and legal terms in making the community understand different aspects of policy and its impact on their lives.

Their rights and entitlements under the following laws are communicated to the community using multi media techniques.

The Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmer’s Rights Act (PPVFR). Farmers are explained that this Act safeguards their right to sow, resow, exchange, save, share and sell all kinds of seed including seeds of protected varieties in the way they have always done. But they are not allowed to sell protected variety seeds under a brand name.

Farmers are entitled to benefit sharing through the National Gene Fund. Acknowledging that farmers play a central role in conserving and improving traditional plant varieties and that all new varieties are ultimately based on traditional varieties bred by farmers the Act upholds that plant breeders (scientists) have to pay money into the National Gene Fund, in return for using traditional varieties to breed new varieties. When plant breeders apply for protection of their new varieties, they have to provide full disclosure of the geographical source, origin and parentage of their varieties. This guards against biopiracy and ensures transparent benefit sharing.

Plant breeders banned from breeding plant varieties that use terminator technology, which produce seeds that are sterile and cannot be resown for the next season. The Act protects farmers from being prosecuted for innocent infringements of the provisions of the Act if he can prove in court that he was unaware of the existence of such a right.

The Biodiversity Act. It is explained that under this act the community has safeguards such as – other than them, any outsider accessing the biological resources and traditional knowledge needs to take the permission of the National Biodiversity Authority. The benefits of using local bio resources will be shared with communities i.e. in lieu of using their bio resources and indigenous knowledge to develop a commercial product, communities are entitled to receive financial benefits, transfer of technology, venture capital funds and joint ownership of IPRs on the commercial product. National, state and local biodiversity funds will be set up to receive money for benefit sharing arrangements. This money will then be channelled to the community for bio resource conservation and socio-economic development of the community.

Before a proposed project in an adivasi or rural area is set up, a biodiversity impact assessment must be done of the area. In this context to improve community representation in these decisions, Gene Campaign has been helping the community demand for rectification of the following clauses of the Act > Include members of the gram sabha or village assemblies into the Biodiversity Management Committees (BMC) to ensure actual representation of the stakeholders.

Provide legal protection to the knowledge recorded in the Peoples Biodiversity Register (PBR). The PBR is a document that records the diversity of species of flora, fauna, crops, livestock, etc. However, there is no legal protection available for the knowledge recorded in the PBR. As a result, even though communities create and maintain a database of their resources of knowledge, there is no requirement that their consent be sought when it comes to accessing the information in the PBRs. This must change. > Though the Act clearly has spelt out criteria for rejecting applications, it does not list community consent as one of them and this reduces the role of the BMC to an advisory one only in the grant approvals.

The Patents Act. Communities are explained what patents are and how the provisions of the patent act impacts them. They are told that neither plant varieties, seeds, animals or their parts nor life forms other than microorganisms can be patented. Similarly, drugs/products derived from indigenous knowledge or from traditional healing practices cannot be patented. What can be patented are genetically modified micro-organisms and the production process of a seed by a non-biological means.

The Geographical Indications Act. Using examples of how Indian turmeric, basmati rice, neem were wrongfully patented, communities are informed of the GI Act and the legal status that has been provided to special products associated with a particular area. That the law recognises that it is the knowledge and skills of community in a specific location that develop the exclusive characteristics of the product produced in their area hence they have exclusive rights on it, including the name which cannot be used by another set of people residing in a different region but producing a similar product.

Some examples of products protected under the GI act are Basmati rice, Darjeeling tea, Kanchipuram silk, Alphonso mangoes, Nagpuri chappal, Mysore silk, Malda mangoes, etc.

Communicating the information

To make the laws understood by the community, the legalese is greatly simplified, paraphrased and translated to regional and local dialects. But because marginalised communities have very little exposure or a sense of rights and empowerment they often find it difficult to internalise the nature and nuances of empowering legislation easily. Gene Campaign, therefore, has developed a wide repertoire of communication messages and interaction techniques that help communities digest legal matters in a way that is entertaining as well as informative.

Music: Because music attracts attention and catchy songs are often remembered key, messages are often made into songs and performed in public with musical accompaniments. These songs use local tunes and are composed in local dialects and help people remember and recall the messages better.

Nukkad Nataks: Street plays are one of the most popular forms of engaging with the community. They are written by the local youth who are trained on various rights and issues of concern. These plays, accompanied with humour and the performance of local actors, are heavily attended by men, women and children alike and often create talking points in the community for further discussions.

A public interaction location often has colourful banners and posters to create a celebratory atmosphere. Banners carry rights based slogans such as: Hamara beej Hamara Adhikar – We have rights over our seeds > Hamare Beejon par Patent nahin- Hargiz nahin – No one can patent our seeds > Beejon ka Panjikaran karao , Beejon par adhikar Jatao: Let’s list all our seeds to protect them > Hamare Gaon Ke Aaspaas ke jungle par Hamara Adhikar – Our forests are ours > Desi gyan par koi Patent nahin – No one can patent our knowledge

The constant exposure of such messages as a back drop to the performances helps communities get acquainted with their rights. And all discussions and performances are designed to encourage interaction and elicit opinion from the audiences to make it more participatory.

Simple literature: Public congregations are held at convenient places in the village such as the common meeting place, school, community halls etc. And the messages conveyed through songs and plays are reinforced through simple readable literature and posters that are put up across village thoroughfare areas.

For instance, the complex and dense material contained in international treaties which led to the national legislation and the legislation themselves are portrayed in a set of illustrated wall papers in Hindi. The pictorial representation appeals to the readers and breaks heavy text.

Wherever a meeting is held the discussion is routed through the medium of posters and wallpapers so that messages get associated with the posters and wallpapers, in the hope of increasing the retentive value of the written texts. Gene Campaing also produces and distributes within the community yearly calendars illustrating the medicinal uses of local flora – flowers, fruit trees and common spices.

Wall writings: Rights messages and slogans are painted on walls, pipes and any available space. Many people see these messages every day, thus helping in their reinforcement. Students often read them out aloud on their way to and from school, and often become enthusiastic champions of the thought. A popular activity is trying to get the communities to come up with new slogans. In fact several slogans used by GC were raised by people from the villages.

These techniques it has been found allow for greater transmission of information than through the ‘training and lecture format.’ What makes them more effective is that usually after designing these ínfotainment’ modules they are tested in different locations with different kinds of people and based on feedback they are modified to make them more relevant.

And apart from the community-based awareness work, Gene Campaign also trains a cadre of trainers from among the local youth who are equipped to conduct such programmes in the future on their own. The idea is to groom these local trainers to become resource persons and champions of community and farmers rights.

Empowering farmers to speak out against the agrarian crisis: The Jan Sunwai

In the backdrop of the claims and counter claims that genetic engineering of crops is the solution to the food and agrarian crisis India is facing, Gene Campaign organised a ‘ Jan sunwai’ (public hearing) platform to take the debate to the very people it concerned most – the growers of food, the farmers, and to find out from them what they considered were the problems leading to hunger and the crisis in the agriculture sector.

Approximately 5000 farmers from across the country congregated at the historic monument of Jantar Mantar in New Delhi, in 2007. The consensus that emerged from the gathering was that constraints such as high input costs, market unavailability and very low market price for produce, lack of credit, water scarcity, climatic uncertainties, low budgetary outlay for agriculture improvement, the SEZ Act, etc were contributing to the agrarian crisis. They made it clear that for not a single of these constrains did biotechnology provide an answer. And it was their submission that more than Genetically Modified Seeds, it was organic agricultural practices that needed to be encouraged, and most importantly, their markets secured.

The congregation presented their views and evidences to a Commission consisting of Justice Rajendra Sachar, Sri Prabhash Joshi (Former Senior Editor Jan Satta), Sanjay Parikh(Advocate Supreme Court) and Swami Agnivesh (President, World Council Of Arya Samaj) who had been invited to the public hearings and convey these recommendations to the government.