When two iconic products from Tamil Nadu — the Dindigul lock and Kandangi sari— were granted the Geographical Indication (GI) tag by the Geographical Indications Registry earlier this week, experts tracking these sectors opined that the development had come at a time when the industries were dying out. Will the tag do anything at all for these industries, or the people employed in large numbers, painstakingly crafting each product by hand?
Tamil Nadu has several GI tags to its credit, acquired in recent years, and an analysis shows that the authorised users have not been utilising the rights that the tag bestows to the fullest extent even as awareness regarding the implications of the tag remains low. Significantly, many of these products have lost their relevance in today’s market.
“Geographical Indication is more than just a name or a symbol. It reflects a reputation strongly linking certain products to geographical areas, thus giving them an emotional component,” said Sreemathy Mohan, a textile expert based in Chennai. “For example, why should I choose to buy a ‘Swiss’ watch? Because it is an identity to prove that the watch was manufactured in Switzerland, according to Swiss technical norms, 60% of the manufacturing cost is generated there, it is inspected by a manufacturer there, etc.,” she added.
“Is this happening in India? For tangible products such as handlooms, the GI tag is a means to preserve traditional knowledge (TK) and traditional cultural expressions (TCEs) for future generations,” Ms. Sreemathy explained. “Two days back, a particular type of Chettinadu saree (Kandangi) got a GI. Do you know the ground situation? Everywhere — online and in shops — power loom sarees (priced from ₹300) are being sold as Chettinadu sarees. What is happening with Kanjivaram, Thirubhuvanam, Arani and Sungudi saris? The power loom versions have invaded the market, and in some cases, power looms are passed off as handlooms too. If a GI tag is given to a product, how do we measure the code of practice or regulations of use?”
The fact is that Geographical Indications are supposed to provide indigenous communities with a means to differentiate their products and benefit from their commercialisation, thereby improving their economic position. Sadly, this is also not happening, she added, in a stinging critique of the GI system as it is being practised now.
A GI tag is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation by virtue of their geographical association. The tag conveys an assurance of quality and distinctiveness which are essentially attributable to the geographical origin of the product. The owner of the GI tag has exclusive rights over the product. As on August 29, Tamil Nadu has 31 products with GI status.
Experts and lawyers specialising in GI are of the opinion that the scope of GI has not been exploited to the fullest extent here, unlike in other countries, and there are no proper mechanisms to monitor what happens after a product is given this tag.
Take the case of Toda embroidery (made by the Toda women). Though this product is protected by the GI tag, most Toda artisans indicated that this does not stop duplicators from copying their designs. Northey Kuttan, a member of the Toda community and President of the Nilgiri Primitive Tribal People’s Federation, said that even if the community discovers that there is duplication happening, there is confusion as to what needs to be done, and whom to approach with complaints. Bhooma Devi, a Toda artisan from Muthanadu Mund in Udhagamandalam, said that business has dropped sharply over the last two years due to ‘outsiders’, meaning non-Todas, copying Toda designs and selling the products online, at a cheaper rate.
The GI tag has not worked well for the Coimbatore wet grinder, which bagged this honour in March 2005, as the stones used in making this were unique to this region. Almost 14 years since the receipt of the recognition, hardly any manufacturer here displays the tag. “I am still looking for opportunities that the manufacturers can leverage based on the GI tag. We will do it soon,” said M. Raaja, president of the Coimbatore Wet Grinders and Accessories Manufacturers Association. Coimbatore has nearly 400 wet grinder manufacturers, including 25 brands. Grinders from here are sold across the country. Most of the units here are small-scale, withlittle knowledge of the benefits and importance of the tag.
In Erode district, the famous Erode m anjal (turmeric) got the GI registration (filed by the Erode Manjal Vanigargal Matrum Kidangu Urimaiyalargal Sangham) this year. There are several buyers who specifically ask for Erode turmeric as its curcumin percentage is between 2.5 and 3. They can buy with confidence now from the traders who are members of the association, said K.V. Ravishankar, president of the Erode Turmeric Merchants Association. “Though the GI recognition does not fetch higher price for the turmeric, it does give confidence to the buyers that they are buying original Erode turmeric that has specific qualities,” he added.
A lot of handicrafts are also not able to capitalise on the GI tag that was given to them several years ago. In fact, according to sources, Tamil Nadu has bagged the most GI tags in the handicrafts space. One of the authorised users, on condition of anonymity, said that once people get the GI tag there is no follow-up, no one to track whether the products are original and from the specified region. “A lot of them lack budgets for marketing,” he said.
Ditto was the case with the Thanjavur doll. “It has just given recognition for our art. Nothing more”, said, S. Boopathy of Punnainallur Mariamman Kovil, a hamlet near Thanjavur. Similarly, a Thanjavur painting artist claimed that the steps initiated to `save’ this art by encouraging outsiders to become Thanjavur painting artists had nullified the individuality of the art.
Despite all this, a few products have done well after getting the GI tag. For instance, the Madurai malli (jasmine) and Madurai Sungudi (sari). Small business owners selling m alli at the flower market in Mattuthavani say that although they have not seen wide market expansion since the receipt of the GI tag, there has been a reduction in the number of people plagiarising their product’s properties.
The Madurai Sungudi was recognized with a GI tag in 2005 as a result of efforts by the Madurai Sungudi Javuli Manufacturers and Traders Sangam . “The craft had almost vanished and only after the GI recognition, did many craftsmen realise the importance of saving the Sungudi,” said A.K. Ramesh of Sagambari Crafts. “The GI tag has also made it easier for us to apply for loans from NABARD, etc. Earlier, saris woven in Chinnalapatti, in the neighbouring Dindigul district, were also sold off under the name ‘Sungudi’, but now people are aware that real Sungudi is specific to Madurai.”
Chinnaraja G. Naidu, Deputy Registrar of Geographical Indications, admitted that ensuring effectiveness of GI tag has been a challenge. He said that the current rules in terms of safeguarding GIs are not user friendly and need amendment. “There has been a lack of awareness among the consumers as well as the producers on the importance of GI tags. In Europe, a lot of importance is given to GI and consumers pay a premium for GI products,” he added.
Chennai-based IP attorney P. Sanjai Gandhi, who has been instrumental in getting GI tags for several products in Tamil Nadu, said that products with this tag have an additional value in the market. He argued that in many cases it has help revive the industry. “The market value of each product that has received a GI tag runs into several crores, which remains untapped,” Mr. Gandhi said. He suggested that State governments come forward and introduce a GI policy and also allocate funds for promoting products with GI tags. “The GI office is headquartered out of Chennai, so more products from the State should be encouraged to apply for this tag. The Tamil Nadu government can also promote products with GI tags during the Global Investors Meet and other business meets that happen from time to time,” he added.
Latha R. Nair, an IP lawyer and partner in K&S Partners, explained: “The Indian statute on GI protection has no quality control provisions unlike the European Regulation, which lays down stringent checks for quality control systems prior to registration and quality inspections post registration. In comparison, the Indian statute has no provisions mandating quality checks in the Act or the implementing Rules. Had there been such provisions, any GI tag would have assured consumers of guaranteed quality and an origin-specific product.”
She further explained that registering a GI without making arrangements for funding enforcement and promotion is another reason for the current scenario. In a participative process to form an applicant body and register a GI, most, if not all, of the producers would be involved. This makes the stakeholders aware of what is expected and required. For example, once the GI is registered, questions to be answered are: how to market it, where to market it, whether it should be exported and, if yes, which jurisdictions, how to address fakes, what legal process is to be followed, what promotional activities can be undertaken and how to fund the process.
Additionally, there is no stipulation for a participative process followed in the formation of most GI applicant bodies, resulting in a majority of stakeholders being kept in the dark about the GI protection. Being a collective community right, the stakeholders must be informed that their collective right is going to be formally protected and that henceforth they must conform to certain rules of production. Only a handful of well protected GIs like Basmati rice and Darjeeling tea have followed this. According to her, currently, most of the Indian GIs are like orphans with no parent coming forth to adopt, nurture and nourish them or take a stand for them.
“GIs are truly invaluable resources for economic and social development and India is blessed with an abundance of GIs. However, unless quick steps are taken to amend the GI statute to make quality control the pivot of protection and make a separate stream for protecting traditional recipes, the GI protection process in India will soon lose its credibility,” she noted.
Meanwhile, the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), in its annual report of 2018-19, has said that an action plan for promotion of Geographical Indications of India has been prepared. This can help supplement the incomes of farmers, weavers, artisans and craftsmen. A logo and tagline for all Indian GIs has been prepared through crowd sourcing. Various State governments and administrations of Union Territories have been requested to create awareness on GIs amongst both consumers and producers, assist in capacity-building and hand-holding of respective GI producers and facilitate sale and marketing of GIs.
Some of the GI products in Tamil Nadu
Certificate Date: 02-06-2005 The Kanchipuram weaver uses 4 filaments of the Sappuri twisted on the dola as weft yarn, so it is more durable compared to other varieties.
Certificate Date 12-12-2005 It is believed that the art of making the Madurai Sungudi saree came into Madurai during the Nayak dynasty that ruled Madurai around the 16th century onwards. The art of making the Sungudi sarees is time immemorial and came from the weavers' viz. the Saurashtras community Coimbatore Wet Grinder
Certificate Date: 30-01-2006 Coimbatore has emerged as the natural wet grinder industry due to the availability of the natural stones suitable for wet grinder nearby. Thanjavur Paintings
Certificate Date 16-05-2007 It is the one of the few art forms that exists today which employs precious stones and golden flakes extensively for creating figures with static expressions. Madurai Malli
Certificate Date: 15-01-2013 People claim the flowers in this area has specialized characters like strong fragrance, thick petals, lengthiest petiole, delayed opening of buds, delayed petal discoloration and keeping quality. Thanjavur Veenai (Tanjore Veena)
Certificate Date: 16-05-2007 The Thanjavur Veenai is about four feet in length. lt has 24 fixed frets (Mettu), so that all ragas could be played. These 24 metal frets are embedded with hardened bees-wax, mixed with charcoal powder. Erode Manjal (Erode Turmeric)
Certificate Date: 06-03-2019 Erode Turmeric requires a hot and moist climate for cultivation. It is mostly grown under irrigated conditions as the annual rainfall received is low. Mahabalipuram Stone Sculpture
Certificate Date: 14-11-2017 Mahabalipuram, a World heritage site and famous as the sixth century centre of Pallava art and architecture in India. It came to the glory after the Pallava started with the structural and monolithic temple architecture in this area Chettinad Kottan
Certificate Date: 04-03-2013 The Chettinad Kottan is specific to the villages in and around the region of Chettinad - Karaikudi and its surrounding villages. The characteristic shape of the baskets, the weave structures, patterns and colours are unique to this region.
(W ith inputs from Rohan Premkumar from Udhagamandalam, M. Soundariya Preetha from Coimbatore, V. Venkatasubramanian from Thanjavur, A. Shrikumar from Dindigul and Sanjana Ganesh from Madurai )