PepsiCo drops lawsuit against Gujarat farmers over potatoes for Lay’s chips

Chhabil Patel, Haribhai Patel, Vinod Patel and Bipin Patel, all in their forties and quite the quintessential Indian farmers, have become minor celebrities in Sabarkantha district of north Gujarat after US snack and beverage giant PepsiCo Inc said last week that it was dropping a lawsuit it brought against the four men for growing a variety of potato that goes into making its Lay’s chips.

Confronting the meticulously drafted infringement lawsuit filed in April, the four potato growers stood no chance. PepsiCo accused them of stealing a variety of potato over which it claims to have exclusive rights, seeking damages of Rs 1 crore from each.

The case could have financially wrecked the farmers and possibly meant jail time. In a stunning reversal, PepsiCo said on Thursday, May 2, that it would drop the charges. “We would have never been able to pay that sum. We would have had to commit suicide,” said Bipin Patel.

Hannah Lownbrough, the executive director of UK-based Sum Of Us, a group that describes itself as “fighting for people over profits”, said from London that PepsiCo suing the four Indian farmers was a “bit of a nonsense”.

The action against the four Patels also set off international protests. “I was told that pro-farmer groups in France have initiated a coordinated cyberaction to denounce PepsiCo,” said Kapil Shah, the founder of Vadodara-based Jatan Trust, a farmers’ rights advocacy group defending the farmers.

As civil society came forward to challenge PepsiCo, the company felt the issue could blow up into a major political controversy in the middle of India’s general elections, people with knowledge of the company’s stance said on condition of anonymity.

When the farmers were served the summonses, they didn’t rush to a lawyer. Rather, they tipped off the local leaders of the Bharatiya Kisan Sangh, the influential farm wing of the Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), the ideological parent of the ruling Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP). The general secretary of Gujarat’s BKS chapter, BK Patel, hails from the same district as the farmers.

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM), another affiliate of the RSS, also jumped to the farmers’ defence. According to Ashwini Mahajan of the SJM, PepsiCo’s actions amounted to “coercion of the farmers”.

Both BKS and SJM have been outspoken about restricting multinationals to protect Indian businesses and farmers.

“I was furious,” says BK Patel.

Patel got in touch with Kapil Shah, who is well known for his advocacy of farmers’ rights. In a coordinated move, Shah reached out to nearly 200 organisations countrywide.

In a rare instance, both right-wing and left-leaning organisations, such as the Leftist All-India Kisan Sabha, joined hands.

BKS approached Gujarat deputy chief minister, Nitin Patel, and formally asked the government to intervene on April 24, BKPatel said. In a jolt to PepsiCo, the deputy chief minister on April 28 told the BKS that the state government was considering pleading the Ahmedabad commercial court to make it a party in the case in favour of the farmers.

A day after PepsiCo said it was withdrawing the cases, farm activists from both left and rightwing organisations assembled at Gujarat’s historic Gandhi Vidyapith.

“When something so drastic and unjustifiable like this happens, everybody likes to work for farmers. Not just for political reasons. Can a multinational be allowed to claim ₹1 crore from farmers in this country? Left, right, centre…everybody will fight it. The seed must be protected,” said Shah.

PepsiCo filed the lawsuits on April 5, alleging the farmers were growing the FC5 potato variety, which PepsiCo exclusively uses for Lay’s potato chips because it has the rights under the Protection of Plant Varieties and Farmers Right Act. PepsiCo secured a certificate of registration of FC5 in February 2016 from India’s plant varieties registry, it says.

PepsiCo has said that according to section 28 of the Act, as the registered breeder of FC5, it had exclusive rights over the variety. Farm activists argue that the same Act, under section 39, allows farmers to “save, use, sow resow, exchange, share or sell” a protected variety like FC5 as long as it is not sold as a “branded” item.

PepsiCo also says that the company and its predecessors have carried out extensive research, studies and trials towards developing FC5 and “spent huge amounts of money towards the same”.

The court battle may not be over yet, although PepsiCo announced the withdrawal of the lawsuit in a statement. Shah said on Sunday that PepsiCo’s lawyer told him in writing that he had received no communication from the company with regard to withdrawal of the cases. Shah has called for more meetings that could see farm associations from the “right, left and centre” prepare their next round of a David-Goliath farm battle.