The bizarre demand for a Banarasi paan GI

Geographical Indication tag continues to be handed out without examining the scientific basis or the integrity of such claims

By Latha Jishnu
Published: Monday 22 November 2021

Old timers may recall a popular 1970s film song that a rambunctious Amitabh Bachchan belts out in praise of the Banarasi paan. His mouth oozing with the bright red juice of the chewed paan (betel quid), the hero praises its brain-stimulating qualities as he jives before an admiring audience.

The Banarasi paan that the song extols is one of the more popular varieties that paan vendors dispense at most street corners across the country. 

For those unfamiliar with the custom of chewing betel leaf, paan means both the betel leaf which is used as the base and the finished product (betel quid) that usually comes rolled with different fillings depending on local preferences.

Almost every region has its own speciality, but what basically go into the making of the paan are slaked lime, areca nut and the paste of the catechu bark, along with different aromatic condiments and spices — a concoction chewed by millions of Indians as a mouth freshener, a postprandial digestive or a stimulant, when tobacco is added. It’s as ubiquitous as anything you can think of on Indian streets, from roasted peanuts to cut fruits.

But with the rampant zeal for securing the Geographical Indication (GI) tag on just about any product, it was not entirely unexpected that someone should think of securing this form of intellectual property protection for the paan leaf. If an offering such as the laddoo made by the Tirupati temple can be awarded a GI — the temple is estimated to make over Rs 7 lakh daily from commercial sales of the sweet — why shouldn't indigent farmers seek some protection on agricultural products, however humble?

So far, two varieties of betel leaf have got the tag from the GI Registry (GIR) in Chennai, which is part of the patent office. The first is the Maghai paan from Bihar, a distinctive variety grown in four districts of the state, which fetches a high price. The second is the Mahoba Desawari paan, which grows in Mahoba district of Uttar Pradesh and Chhatarpur in Madhya Pradesh.

The latter claims an ancient lineage from the time of the Chandela rulers and is said to have been mentioned in the Ain-i-Akbari as a major crop in Mahoba that provided handsome revenue to the Mughal kingdom.

Neither has benefited from GI. In fact, there have been stories of distress in relation to the Maghai, which is even exported because there is no support from the state administration in enforcing GIs or in providing marketing support or a supervisory structure for such products.

The belief is that GI for agricultural items will benefit farmers by enabling them to charge premium prices for products that possess certain qualities or a reputation entirely on account of its place of origin. In order to earn the GI label, producers — it is a community right and not meant for individuals — must clearly identify a product as originating in a given place and their community role in nurturing it.

Now comes a third application, this time for the Banarasi betel leaf. As absurdities go, this certainly takes the cake, because experts say there is no such variety — even though the betel quid so named is synonymous with the ancient pilgrim city. The base ingredient, the betel leaf, is brought in from other parts — the Maghai from Bihar, the Desi from Jaunpur or the Jagannathi from Odisha.

Almost every aspect of the application is bizarre. The GI has not been sought by a farmers’ community but by a partnership between a commercial entity, the Namami Gange Farmer Producer Company and a non-governmental organisation calling itself the Human Welfare Association, which by its own admission works to help the weaver community. The link is that the applicant is a director in both organisations.

A perusal of the documents provided to GIR by some of the applicants show that they are vague and irrelevant, expatiating on the generic qualities of betel leaves and on such trivia as the methods of packing betel leaves — all clearly lifted from basic botanical journals at random.

As a result, there are some amazingly self-contradictory statements, as in the case of the application submitted by Namami Gange. While dilating on qualities of the so-called Banarasi betel leaf, the application unwittingly lets the cat out of the bag by quoting from a historical journal which states:

Paan is not extensively cultivated in the district but is imported in large quantities from outside. The principal variety is Maghai, which is imported from Gaya in Bihar. Another variety is Jagannathi which is imported from the Puri and Balasore districts in Orissa. Some of the paan comes from Madras as well. The Desi variety (also known as Bangla) is imported mostly from the districts of Jaunpur and Mirzapur.

That should have been the end of the matter, but the registry has asked for more details! 

There is clearly lack of application of mind. A nominated expert from the Indian Council of Agricultural Research who has attended meetings between the applicants and GIR finds that most of the supporting scientific information in such applications is culled from substandard scientific journals, commonly termed as predatory journals that publish articles just to make money.

What is surprising is that although there is a government approved list of scientific journals, GIR ignores this rule. 

As for the Banarasi betel leaf, there is no accession number available in reputed repositories like the National Bureau of Plant Genetic Resources. The claimed DNA profiling of the variety is also not available, which means the identity of the leaf will always be in dispute.

The discord has already started, with an organisation of Banarasi betel leaf processors sending a representation to the registry against the “illegal and malafide” attempt by Namami Gange to grab the business by misrepresenting the facts. The Shri Barai Sabha Kashi of the Chaurasia community claimed it has been involved in all aspects of the business for the last 68 years, in particular the special processing of the leaf used in the Banarasi quid. 

It would be interesting to see how GIR handles the latest controversy. Fortunately, a GI has not been handed out yet, so it may still be able to save face. Meanwhile, the farce continues.

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