The rosogolla row

Indians love getting the Geographical Indication tag for anything, but does it confer any special benefits?

By Latha Jishnu
Last Updated: Friday 04 September 2015
Illustration: Tarique Aziz
Illustration: Tarique Aziz Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Illustration: Tarique Aziz

Now it is the turn of rosogolla to get its 15 seconds of fame. This spongy sweetmeat—made from perfect spheres of chhanna, a cross between cottage cheese and cream cheese, that are dunked in sugar syrup—is now vying for a Geographical Indication (GI) tag and creating quite a media ruckus because the application has come from Odisha and not Bengal, the state with which it is commonly linked. Anyone who has ever eaten or bought the sweet from the zillions of Bengal sweet houses that dot India’s culinary landscape believes it is a Bengali delicacy.

But that, it turns out, is not quite true. The rosogolla, according to a treacly overdose of food history that is spreading across the media space in newspapers, websites and Twitter, originated in neighbouring Odisha, in a little village called Pahala on the highway between Bhubaneswar and Cuttack. Apparently, it was called kheer mohana and was being offered at the Jagannath Temple in Puri since the 18th century, at least a century before the legendary Nobin Chandra Das of Kolkata invented it. Now, culinary history can be pretty fascinating and I am as interested as any epicurian in picking up some nuggets on the origins of certain dishes. But frankly, the sudden passion of the Odiyas for staking their claim to the rosogolla is puzzling. It was sparked by a move initiated by the Micro, Small and Medium Enterprises (MSME) department of the Odisha government to get a GI tag for this sweet. A GI is an intellectual property right (IPR), somewhat akin to a brand name, that is granted to a product because of its geographical uniqueness.

GI products always carry the name of the place from where they originate, because agricultural items in particular have qualities that derive from their place of production and are influenced by local factors, such as climate, soil and water. Hence, the name, champagne, for the bubbly that is made exclusively from grapes grown in the Champagne region of France. Or Scotch whiskey that is made in Scotland using only the clearest and purest water from its lochs and rivers. Or our own Darjeeling tea that comes from, of course, Darjeeling. The GI is a community shared benefit that aims to protect and expand markets globally.

French makers of champagne and Scottish producers of Scotch do not want imitators in India or elsewhere calling their wares by either of these protected GI tags. Nor are Darjeeling tea growers likely to be willing to let tea gardens in Sri Lanka, for instance, to pass off their product as Darjeeling.

But why are Indians determined to get the GI tag for a crazy assortment of items, ranging from wet grinder (made in practically every nook and corner of south India), jasmines grown in various districts, or for ubiquitous food items such as haleem, laddoo and peda? Each region, city or village has its own variant of such products but India being what it is, these popular items are made and sold everywhere and are unlikely to get any market leverage just because there is a GI tag attached to it. At least in food items, there is not the slightest indication that domestic markets—hardly any of the products are being exported—have expanded because of a GI label.

The Geographical Indication Registry in Chennai has so far handed out 236 GIs, many of them on questionable grounds. For the most part, GIs are seen as an end in themselves and state governments have done nothing much to promote the products or to help the communities capitalise on this advantage.

My neighbourhood Bengali shop makes a superb rosogolla and has no dearth of patrons. They have hardly heard of GIs or Pahala and are not likely to care.

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