India: moving forward, the GI way!
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India: moving forward, the GI way!

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Devika Mehra and Devaki Sharma of Remfry & Sagar highlight India’s ambitious initiative to protect and promote its domestic handicrafts and produce via geographical indications

Geographical indications (GI) are a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin. In India, the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999 provides for the registration and protection of geographical indications. Darjeeling tea, an iconic Indian product, was the first to get a registered GI tag in India in 2004. Nearly two decades on, there are over 450 GI registrations in India and more than 90% of these are for local products. This number attests to the rich culture and varied heritage of India, as well as the geographical diversity of its land. It is also a reflection of the strong initiatives launched by the government to promote the awareness and protection of GI amongst stakeholders in the country, post the adoption of India’s National IPR Policy in 2016.

From tea to textiles

On March 31, 2023, the GI Registry granted GI certification to 33 new products. This included agricultural products such as the popular ‘langda’ variety mango from Varanasi, in the State of Uttar Pradesh, and the famed ‘wood carving’ from the northern territory of Ladakh. In fact, the Indian GI register is populated with a varied mix of agricultural (30%) and handicraft (70%) products. Well-known agricultural products with a GI tag include basmati rice and Kangra tea – the latter recently received GI recognition in the EU as well.

Also on the Register are Indian spices such as Malabar pepper and Alleppey green cardamom, the global popularity of which has spanned centuries. Handicrafts include:

  • Popular textiles such as Pochampalli ikat (from Telengana) and Kashmir Pashmina;

  • Footwear, such as Kolhapuri chappals from Maharashtra;

  • Toys, such as Channapatna toys and dolls from Karnataka;

  • Furniture, such as Kashmir walnut wood carvings;

  • Paintings, such as the thanjavur painting from Tamil Nadu;

  • Decorative items, such as Bastar iron craft from Chhattisgarh, Jaipur blue pottery or wrought iron crafts of Dindori from Madhya Pradesh; and

  • Tiles, such as Mangalore tiles, and more recently Athangudi flooring tiles from Tamil Nadu.

Given India’s rich heritage, some GI products stem from its history. An interesting example is the registration of the ‘Puneri Pagadi’ emanating from the western Indian city of Pune. The Puneri Pagadi is a form of headgear or turban which is considered a symbol of pride and honour in Pune. Traditionally, it was the mascot of one of the largest Indian empires, the Maratha Empire. Introduced over two centuries ago, it has been historically worn by many leaders and social reformers of India, including Lokmanya Tilak, and is now used mostly for special occasions such as wedding ceremonies and traditional days in schools and colleges. An association by the name Shree Puneri Pagadi Sangh applied for, and attained, GI status for the headgear in September, 2009.

Programmes and policy

As varied and numerous as the above examples are, they are a mere drop in the ocean. Purportedly, there are over 5000 potential products with geographical significance in India.

To help in optimising protection, serious governmental efforts are on both at the central and state level. Individual states are being encouraged to help their craftsmen and farmers by educating them about GI certifications as well as assisting them with the promotion and sales of GI products. One initiative calls for states to set up a ‘unity mall’ in the state capital, or the most popular tourist destination in the state, for promoting and selling agricultural produce as well as other GI products and handicrafts of that particular state.

Another measure includes the issuance of GI handbooks showcasing the GI tags of the state, as has already been done in Karnataka and Telangana. There is also emphasis on educational initiatives for the public that will help consumers identify authentic vs. fake products. In fact, an INR 750 million (over $9 million) outlay was sanctioned recently by the government for an awareness program over the next three years to support the promotion of Indian GIs as well as showcasing Indian GI products at several events. These included The India GI Fair slated for July 2023 (following a similar event in 2022) as well as the setting up of GI Pavilions at various conferences and fairs across the country. Looking outwards, the government is showcasing Indian GI products internationally by promoting such products at a diplomatic level in the form of gifts to foreign dignitaries, and adorning protected textiles.

However, awareness and monetary investments will only bear fruit if guided by appropriate policy. Unfortunately, at the moment, there is not enough focus on quality inspection of Indian GI products, which can lead to doubts regarding authenticity. Some products such as Pashmina do use radio frequency identification technology to authenticate origin, however, India can learn a lot from the EU in this regard. In the EU, cooperation between government and competent legal authorities ensures quality checks on all goods before they are sent out into the market. This ensures the authenticity, reputation and quality of GI products, makes them more attractive to consumers, and heightens sales, transferring economic benefits back to the producers.

For the above to be set in motion, establishing regulatory bodies to ensure quality checks at various stages of production of GI products is needed in India. For online sales, the government could set up a digital portal with details of certification bodies accessible to the public. With the EU moving closer to granting GI protection to local crafts and industrial products (currently spirits, wines, agricultural products and foodstuffs are GI certified), which India has in abundance, the quality and packaging of GI tagged goods will prove critical in seeking protection in the EU and entering the common market.

The recently held brainstorming session at the ‘GI Manthan’ on February 21, 2023 suggests India is on the right track. The meeting brought to the forefront some useful points for consideration – apart from easier GI registration processes and spreading of awareness, discussions also centered on quality control. It is hoped that some of the points raised will be worked on by the government and positive steps taken will benefit consumers and producers alike.

Final thoughts

As the Indian GI Registry’s website states, GI tags reflect the combination of the best of nature and man. Skills traditionally handed over from one generation to the next for centuries have gradually led to the emergence of a specific link between certain goods and their place of production. And the quality and reputation of the goods has been carefully built up and painstakingly maintained by the masters of that region.

Not only is it critical to protect GI goods to ensure that traditional knowledge and knowhow is preserved for the good of the community, GI tags also provide the added advantage of being a differentiating element in crowded marketplaces. Goods with a GI tag carry powerful assurances of quality and good practices which make them elite products in their category, with tremendous potential in domestic and export markets alike. Given India’s natural advantage in this sector, it is very encouraging to see the efforts being made by the government and stakeholders alike to pivot Indian GI products into the spotlight – not just in India but globally.

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