No end to these silly GIs

In their mad rush for Geographical Indication tags Indians are ignoring economic rationale

By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Friday 18 October 2019
Rasgulla. Photo: Getty Images

It is perpetual silly season at the Geographical Indications (GIs) registry. The office in Chennai that hands out these special trademarks to goods which are specific to a certain region appears to think it has the mandate to push up the number of GIs it awards while blithely ignoring the rules that govern its issuance.

According to the global definition, GI is given to goods where a given quality and reputation are drawn from its geographic origin. The tag is meant to protect such items from imitations. Like other intellectual property rights it is meant to safeguard monopolies, but it’s a right given to a community of producers, not individuals. 

It made sense for the European Union to push for the recognition of GIs, which were intended to safeguard the markets for high-end products like scotch, champagne and cheeses that earn millions of dollars in the global market.

India, on the other hand, appears to believe in numbers and in domestic competition if at all it exists. It has more than 600 GI products in defiance of logic, rules and any economic rationale.

Take the case of the rosagulla, which is the most popular GI story. No one has asked why West Bengal has sought a GI for a sweetmeat that is available in every nook and cranny of the country. Or, why Odisha was handed a GI for the same item. There’s more to this madness. The Odisha GI has been awarded to the Odisha Small Industries Corp (yes, you read that right) based in Cuttack and a group of sweet makers from Bhubaneswar, both of whom claimed the spongy sweet originated in Puri! 

State governments appear most infected by the GI craze since most of the tags have been given to official organisations and not representative bodies of the producers. Then there are the petty manufacturers, horticulturalists, weavers and even temples. The famous Balaji temple in Tirupati got a GI some years ago for its laddoos (Indians are clearly obsessed by sweets) in a controversial decision that set off reams of analysis and a counter-petition in the courts.

But encouraged by Tirupati’s victory, a Murugan temple in Tamil Nadu has now secured a GI for its prasadam (an offering made to the deity and given to devotees), a mix of banana, jaggery and ghee. What a GI will do for this concoction disbursed in a religious setting boggles the mind. 

It’s curious how India invariably gets its priorities mixed up. The GI is intended to protect markets globally for products that enjoy a geographical USP, and is not meant to be a numbers game among states.

Basmati rice, India’s best bet in GI-labelled exports along with Darjeeling tea, did not get the tag for eight long years. At the same time, a host of ubiquitous products, from wet grinders to embroidery, which could have done with a standard trademark, jostled for the GI label in the mistaken belief that it would magically boost their business.

The added cost of a GI mark is problematic in a country that is extremely price conscious. Would consumers choose “central Travancore jaggery” above others simply because it has a GI label in the small markets where it is sold?

This was first published in Down To Earth print edition (dated 16-31 October. 2019)

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