When the government announced last year that it intended to frame an Intellectual Property (IP) policy, it evoked responses which were polar opposites.
One heard the questions “why now?” and “why not now?” which were almost like an exchange between Alice and the March Hare, “Why with an M, why not with an M”. Then, there was the threnody in parallel: “S.3(d) must stay” and “S.3(d) must go.”
It is not worth examining headlines such as “IP is not patents alone and patents are not about medicines alone”, for the noise is too overpowering. But it must be understood that IP is also located in unforgettable trademarks — in the creativity of writers, singers and others, in Geographical Indications (GI), and in traditional knowledge.
Amid all this noise, there was a moment of calm, in the form of a pentatonic tune that was played out in Northeast India, and as a workshop organised by the Geographical Indications Registry, Chennai, in collaboration with the Tezpur University Intellectual Property Rights Cell (TUIPR) Cell, Tezpur University, Tezpur, and the North Eastern Development Finance Corporation Ltd (NEDFi), Guwahati. Its focus was to enhance business and to protect the region’s arts and crafts. This was followed by a Geographical Indication camp, a grass-root level initiative for the benefit of the famed Muga silk makers of Assam.
The benefits of GI Muga Silk is a GI. GI is a genre of IP that is India’s strength. Practically everything that we grow, make or produce is linked to a particular region. For example, we often hear these examples in every day conversation: ‘Leave your Kolhapuri chappals over there.’ ‘Come in and wash your hands with Mysore Sandal soap.’ ‘Have those idlis made with the Coimbatore wet grinder.’ ‘The Darjeeling tea in the Jaipur pottery cup.’ ‘Where did you buy that Sanganeri print?’ All of them are GIs.
The Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999 provides for the registration, the protection against infringement, and also protection for authorised users. Our people have always been closely linked with the soil, the vegetation, in short the local environment to make or grow our products. So, the promotion of GI has other socio-economic and environmental benefits besides just the protection of IP. The Northeast region has a rich and ancient tradition and culture. It is also rich in bio-diversity. A stunning variety of forms of art and craft continues to be preserved by ethno-cultural groups who belong there. Like in the rest of India, the people there have fully and creatively used what they have found around them and have made it typically theirs and of their region. It is this that forms the basis for the generation of many GIs. Besides empowering them, the workshop was aimed at creating an awareness of their rights and teaching them how to make use of the law.
Low awareness The golden yellow Muga Silk was registered as a GI in 2007. But only two persons applied to be its authorised users till 2014. So the focus of the GI camp at Lakhimpur was to examine this single GI and the reason behind such low awareness. It was found that the GI status of the product is not utilised to its potential, the stakeholders are unaware of the value of their GI and its benefits, the quality of these products is not standardised, and even when made by genuine persons, the quality varies. Also, the market for the products and the pricing are fragmented, and there are ‘piggyback riders’ who pass off products as GI which naturally devalues the original product. This would apply to other GIs across the country. The camp’s report noted that there is a steady stream of products “that are not “pure Muga” but mixed with other yarns and being passed off as Muga “which is detrimental to the Muga producers”.
Dr. Prabuddha Ganguli, the Ministry of Human Resource Development Intellectual Property Rights Chair of Tezpur University, who was associated with the workshop and the GI camp, said that the response from Muga makers was overwhelming, and that by the end of the day there were more than 90 people applying to be registered as authorised users. So, even small steps bear results, which is a very valuable lesson to all State governments. With some imagination and effort, they can make the legislation work so that quality is maintained and GI products do not face extinction.
The veena is made from the wood of the jackfruit tree; the Thanjavur Veena is a GI. But it may soon become a distant memory because the raw material is becoming scarce and expensive and craftpersons are turning to other sources of income. It is not enough granting a product a GI; the State should nourish the craft. The Thanjavur Veena probably has a more hoary history than the Stradivarius violin. But it does not inspire the national passion that the violin has. In 2013, cyclone Thane which crossed the Tamil Nadu coast caused severe damage to crops and trees, which included jackfruit trees, in Cuddalore district. The State could have ensured that some of that was supplied to the veenai makers of Thanjavur. But the fallen trees were sold as timber! The nadhaswaram makers of Narsingampettai, Tamil Nadu, too are looking for the aacha tree to make their products; they want a GI for their nadhaswarams . But will registration alone be a panacea for their problems and ensure the continuity and nurturing of their crafts? One day when there is no jackfruit tree to make the veenai , oran aacha maram to make the nadhaswaram , will the Thodi and Kalyani gently weep?
For state, private initiatives Although the Act gives the creators/producers statutory and proprietary rights, it is insufficient. The Act must be translated into reality by state and private initiatives. GI owners also have a role to play in promoting their GI, but the undeniable reality is that many of them come from groups that are less vocal and less powerful than say trademark or patent owners. The weavers of Kancheepuram Silk (a GI) are abandoning their craft to earn their livelihood elsewhere, perhaps in one of the global corporations nearby. They know that the dignity and respect that they once commanded as master weavers cannot be earned in these occupations, but when hunger gnaws, one makes compromises. There was a master weaver and designer, Muthu Chettiar in Kanchipuram, who came to Madras in the early 20th century with just 13 annas in his pocket. His craft was so exquisite that the elite of Madras soon vied with each other to possess his saris. The colour ‘M.S. Blue’ was his creation, and the lady nonpareil who gave her name to that hue (M.S. Subbulakshmi) wore only his saris. Today, the looms in Kanchipuram are growing quieter by the day.
Reviving GIs The government has also announced the USTTAD (Upgrading the Skills and Training in Traditional Arts/Crafts for Development) scheme in Varanasi, which is expected to enhance the traditional skills of craftsmen and artisans there. Banarasi Silk is a GI too. If the scheme is worked as conceived, it will benefit the silk-weaving families and their 40,000 looms, and ensure that the exquisite art lives on. Let me cite another example. Ikat (a GI) weaving may not last this decade. Chennai’s Kalakshetra has taken up the revival of the ancient Kodalikaruppur weaving tradition. During the 19th century, these traditional saris were produced at Kodali Karuppur village, about 30 km from Kumbakonam, for the royal family of Thanjavur, using natural vegetable dyes. They went out of fashion due to a variety of reasons. Though Kodalikaruppur is not a GI, this case must be used as an example to revive fading GIs. However, there is another issue. When the GI is made in another area by the original craftsmen, will they be entitled to retain the indication? This is a question that evolving jurisprudence will address.
A scheme called the Kanchi Mahaswami Kalvi Kalachara Kaitozhil Maiyam has been framed by private initiative in Kalavai to nurture the skills of the five groups of Vishwakarmas, who are creators who work with wood, iron, panchaloha , gold and black stone. The students will be taught the creative skills and, alongside, will also learn mainstream subjects. The Swamimalai bronze and the Nachiarkoil kuthuvilakku are GIs too. Unless this generation transmits the skill, and unless the continued existence of all the GIs is ensured, there will be no riders of these lost arts.
In the Payyanur Pavithra Mothiram case, the Intellectual Property Appellate Board directed that the notice to the public must be issued in Malayalam, the regional language. The board also set aside the grant of GI registration to the ‘Payyanur Pavithra’ ring in the name of a society. It said: “The main object of the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act is to protect those persons who are directly engaged in creating or making or manufacturing the goods. When these creators or makers complain that the application has been made behind their back, we cannot allow the registration to remain.” The Mothiram, a uniquely crafted ring, is made of gold and silver by the artisans at Payyanur in Kannur district of Kerala, and it is believed to bring luck and grace to anyone who wears it with deep devotion. In the making of the ring, one requires great expertise and dedication and the artisan is isolated for at least three days to make it. The point is that language should not be a barrier.
The craftspeople who come from the east, the northeast or the south may not know either Hindi or English, but that cannot make their rights less valuable. In fact, the GI camp in Lakhimpur was conducted in Assamese, as it is the language of the Muga silk weavers.
In short, we must take the cue from the Northeast initiative which is a very important one and must be replicated across the country.
(Prabha Sridevan is a former judge of the Madras High Court.)