God’s Invincible Laddoo

Tirupati temple wins its Geographical Indications case on a specious logic; registry order sidesteps fundamental issues

By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Sunday 28 June 2015

imageSo, the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD) which runs the country’s richest temple at Tirupati in Andhra Pradesh has finally won its case to have a Geographical Indication (GI) or appellation for its laddoos. It has taken close to four years for the legal questions raised over the GI tag for a sweet sold at a temple to be brought to a close—and it has ended on a farcical note. None of the substantive issues that were raised by the petitioners have been answered.

Over the years’ legal challenges to the GI for Tirupati laddoos had been filed at the GI Registry in Chennai which hands out these tags and in the Madras High Court, not to forget an impassioned letter sent to the Supreme Court. Most of this was a one-man campaign by scientist Praveen Raj who works with the National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology in Thiruvananthapuram.

He had argued that GI registration of goods produced by private entities would defeat the spirit of GI protection, which is meant for safeguarding, preserving and promoting collective community rights as opposed to private monopoly rights. Although exclusive intellectual property rights are granted for patented products, these have to prove their industrial applicability, according to Raj who has also had a stint as examiner with the Indian Patent Office in Chennai.

No industrial purpose is served by the grant of “goods” status to a temple offering, he had contended. The laddoos, by TTD’s own admission, are offered as prasadam (sanctified food) only to the devotees who visit Tirumala to worship Lord Venkateswara, the presiding deity. Therefore, the said laddoos do not deserve the status of “goods”. Besides, a GI tag on prasadam is an example of commercialisation of divine affairs and would inspire other temples to follow the Tirupati example, and thus lead to “irrevocable damage to the values of society”. Let us ignore the last point—who can deny that religions and places of worship for the most part are already commercial enterprises these days?—and look at the response of the GI Registry to the substantive issues which have been much debated in intellectual property forums.

To start with, it says Raj has no locus standi in the matter. Its reasoning: the applicant is “not even involved in the same trade or manufacturing a similar GI product” and, besides, he resides in Thiruvananthapuram (Kerala) and has no geographical connection with Tirupati Tirumala in Andhra Pradesh. In other words, citizens have no right to challenge GI appellations unless there is a direct commercial interest. And not content with this, assistant registrar Chinnaraja G Naidu has some truly ingenious responses to other crucial points.

How could there be monopoly rights when the laddoos are produced by the collective effort of all the employees of TTD and is not the produce of a single person, he asks. To cap it all, the registry accuses Raj of seeking shameful publicity by using his official position in the correspondence sent to the registry, and imposed a cost of Rs 10,000 for his “reckless, irresponsible, immature attitude”.

To the lay person all this fuss over the ubiquitous laddoo that marks every kind of celebration in India would seem odd and pointless. And most people are unlikely to comprehend why a GI matters although industry has in recent years felt its impact. Manufacturers of whiskey can no longer pass off the home-grown stuff as Scotch. Or sparkling wine as champagne. Such labels, which had become generic over the decades, are now reserved for the real McCoy: Scotch comes only from Scotland champagne from the eponymous region of France. And of course, Darjeeling tea only comes from that region.

GIs are much sought after because they allow producers to obtain premium prices for certain products although such tags are also intended to protect traditional knowledge and community rights, a fact which appears to have been overlooked by the Chennai registry.

In its reckless zeal, it has granted a large number of appellations to government organisations and to outfits like TTD rather than to community organisations. The laddoo, in fact, is a prime example of the faulty logic the registry employs and the curious means it uses to justify its actions. It actually set up an expert committee to study how the laddoos were made and decided the divine dispensation under which they were produced made them eligible for a GI. TTD is said to make an estimated Rs 40-Rs 50 crore from the sale of laddoos and clearly strong commercial interests are at stake owing to competition from “counterfeit versions” sold by the legion of hawkers in the temple town.

Wasn’t a trademark more appropriate in this case? But what is curious is Raj’s last-minute indifference. When the registry finally set a date for the rectification plea after years of delay why did he not attend the crucial hearing? A pity that he ran out of steam in the final lap.

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  • This shows that individuals

    This shows that individuals will not have the steam to live through years of legal procedures even if the purpose is genuine. It is a pity.
    There must be agencies in the country to take on from individuals, put muscle into the case and fight it, if the matter is of public interest.

    Posted by: Anonymous | 8 years ago | Reply
  • If there appeared to be much

    If there appeared to be much Ado About Laddoperhaps it is about bringing different perceptions to the implications of this not only as an ultimate treat but what implications it has for meeting business vulnerability too.
    This is an interesting article, but the slant is very different for the layman who views and takes for granted the various brands of consumer goods and services, that have become very famous because of their quality nature, uniqueness, logo etc. However, in the field of Intellectual Property Rights these products and names are neatly placed into two separate types: firstly, one of trademarks and the other as geographical indications (GI).
    If the examiner Raj quibbles about the term ÔÇ£goodsÔÇØ being applied for the renowned Tirupati Temple Laddu, it inevitably gives rise to confusion. His line of argumentation then focuses on ÔÇÿsafeguarding, preserving and promoting collective community rights as opposed to private monopoly rights.ÔÇÖ
    There is clearly no cookie cutter approach to broaching the Tirupati Temple Laddu case. So what are the obvious contentions?
    Raj appears to have a very restrictive definition of what the term ÔÇ£goodsÔÇØ.
    Yet ÔÇ£Geographical IndicationsÔÇØ are a type of intellectual property ("IP") according to the Trips Agreement. "Geographical Indications," ("GIs") are defined, at Article 22(1) of the TRIPS Agreement, as "indications which identify a good as originating in the territory of a Member, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to its geographic origin." (Source: Overview of Intellectual Property Rights and the TRIPs Agreement).
    Even though Raj has worked as an examiner in Chennai, it would appear that he embraces his own stilted definition to oppose the measure to accord any extension of an additional protection to the renowned traditional hand-made temple delicacy. He therefore bristles at the idea that the Tirupati temple trust could have the temerity to request a GI ÔÇÿgoodsÔÇÖ label for Laddu which are considered ÔÇÿprasadhamsÔÇÖ as both and offering and a divine blessing. Furthermore, he contended that his reasoning also helps ÔÇÿsafeguarding, preserving and promoting collective community rights as opposed to private monopoly rights.ÔÇÖ So, in requesting a GI label has the Tirupati Temple Trust violated any collective community rights?
    The GI label provides a very careful distinction and it does not violate any rights as it allows ALL producers in the region to apply for GI label. Of course, the high quality of Tirupati Temple LadduÔÇÖs speak for themselves. As prasadhams, ideal wedding treats, tourist or pilgrim gifts and buffet treats Laddus show their potential for commercial value, much as any reputable product. Yet are businesses based only upon goodwill and consumer protection alone?
    According to World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO) the ÔÇÿindication of sourceÔÇÖ and the ÔÇÿAppellation of originÔÇÿrelate specifically to ÔÇÿthe geographical origin of a productÔÇØ and therefore not to a sole enterprise that makes or manufactures the said product. This signifies that a GI is accessible to any producer of the locality or region concerned whereas trademarks put emphasis on the producer of a product. A trademark is an individual right and has distinguishing features like colors, logos, symbols, letters or words, abbreviations, specific sounds or identifying image or smell like perfumes or food product or non-food product. A geographical indication means exactly what it conveys in the literary sense relating only to geographic and political boundaries. The Tirupati Temple Trust has clearly asked for a GI label. And it would seem that there has been ÔÇÿMuch Ado about LaddoÔÇÖ. And trademarks do enable one enterprise to disintinguish itself from another.
    The Tirupati Temple Trust is availing of the opportunities in a competitive global market. Thus it is far from having the sole monopoly of the Laddu production in the State or any other Indian State. Quality is the operative word, and looking at the TempleÔÇÖs web site, it recommends safety and hygiene. This amounts to quality in its preparation, sale and showering of prasadham blessings. These days it is quite common to see that such products are sold on the Internet worldwide and quality consumer safeguards are not always guaranteed.
    Vendors, be it street hawkers or middle businessmen, will look kindly upon laissez-faire attitudes. This necessitates therefore a regulation of such genuine business transactions. Making cheaper and industrially made generic laddus from the far corners of the world are possible. They could all be generically labelled laddus but would it guarantee the quality of some of the renowned Indian makes or brands, from say something made industrially by unknowns in far off world capitals.
    The GI process involves a code of conduct and there is a set agenda to examine all the views of stakeholders. Even appeals are looked into and proof must be provided. In order to give a quality label the Registrar or those officially appointed have to examine the products of competitors and appeals made by the contestants. Rejection by an examiner usually requires documentary evidence establishing a prima facie showing that there is no specific, substantial, and credible case for the matter. This is standard practice which is transparent, accountable and is verifiable. These procedures can be obtained in printable form and are available upon request. Many countries have websites where such forms could be consulted online.
    G Stephan

    Posted by: Anonymous | 6 years ago | Reply