India's traditional calling card

India's traditional calling card

by Chinnaraja Naidu

India’s cultural heritage is represented through its rich variety of indigenous products and handicrafts. As the country becomes ‘Vocal for local’, Chinnaraja Naidu takes us through the journey of GI (Geographical Indication) tags and how they help local producers to protect and promote their unique crafts and traditionally acquired knowledge in the country.

Several of Prime Minister of India Narendra Modi’s recent appearances have been with the gamusa, a traditionally woven scarf with distinctive red borders and floral motifs from the state of Assam. The rectangular piece of clothing has been an iconic symbol of Assamese culture since the 18th century. Keeping aside its cultural and historical significance, the gamusa is also unique because it represents a traditional style of weaving practised in India’s eastern frontiers.

With a demography as culturally diverse as India, the gamusa is not the only unique product, in fact, it is one amongst over 370 products exclusively produced across different regions of the country. In a mammoth effort to protect, propagate and celebrate Indian culture, the Geographical Indications (GI) were launched in 2004-05 as an intellectual property right, belonging to the concerned community of the said goods. The first product to be recognised under this norm was Darjeeling Tea. Since then the list has grown to include over 350 unique local products with new applications submitted each year.

Geographical Indications empower producers to prevent its use by an unauthorised party, whose product does not conform to the applicable standards fixed by the registered proprietor within the demarcated geographical area. For example, in the case of Bikaner Bhujia, a savoury snack from Bikaner, Rajasthan, in the jurisdictions in which the Bikaner geographical indication is protected, producers of the said bhujia are to exclude the use of the term “Bikaner” for the snack not produced in the demarcated area or not produced according to the standards set out in the case for the Geographical Indication.

Protecting indigeneity

Geographical Indications, registered for an unlimited duration, confer legal protection to tagged products that help to identify and register the genuine and legitimate producer(s). Largely, the GI system promotes economic prosperity of producers in a geographical territory and helps a community to differentiate their products from competing products in the market. It helps build goodwill around unique local products, and as a result, the premium price received is also directly transferred to those involved with the product.

Another aspect is that GI tagging ensures the high-quality as the distinctive local production process of these products is standardised. All GI tagged products are recognised only after qualifying the benchmark criteria of quality and authenticity. Similarly, for consumers, GIs act as a sign that helps them identify genuine products, adding to the economic prosperity of the producers. It has been noted that an overwhelming majority of consumers are prepared to pay premium prices for goods they believe to have originated in a particular geographical area using a traditional set of skills and knowledge, unique to the region (identifiable with a GI tag).

India’s own Geographical Indications are intellectual property, which means GI within our country is independent of any such rights existing in other countries.

Because of their commercial potential, adequate legal protection of GIs becomes necessary to prevent their misappropriation. Notably, at the international level, the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) of the World Trade Organization (WTO) sets out the minimum standards of GI protection that WTO members are required to comply within their respective national legislations.

Adhering to this obligation, India has enacted the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999. In this regard, applications are made to multi-national consortia in order to protect the identity of these Indian products not just within the country but also across the world. For example, Darjeeling Tea is the only GI tag registered under the EU Regulations. Similarly, to protect the identity of Basmati rice, agencies are faced with an uphill task with litigations outside India. Even for international GIs, to enforce their right in India, the producers should apply under GIG Act. India has registered 15 such GIs from outside the country, that conform to similar, high-quality standards.

Geographical Indications are the identity of our rich cultural and national heritage. The tagged products and those involved with their production are an indispensable part of our diverse culture and society. The GIG act is symbolic of India’s commitment to utilising a contemporary consciousness for protecting our traditional knowledge, while simultaneously promoting Indian heritage across the country. Documenting, protecting and promoting these products in its essence, is an effort towards sustainable intellectual development.

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