| A tea garden in Darjeeling. Picture by Suman Tamang
Darjeeling, Nov. 2: India has taken the first tentative step towards protecting Darjeeling tea to stop unscrupulous producers in various parts of the world from passing off an inferior product as the real McCoy.
The government has notified Darjeeling tea under the country's Geographic Indicator of Good Registration and Protection Act, according to S. Bansal, vice-president of the Darjeeling Planters' Association.
This is the preliminary move towards protecting the brand value of Darjeeling tea across the globe.
A geographical indication (GI) is, generally speaking, a sign used on goods that indicates it comes from a particular region which invests it with certain special qualities or a reputation.
Until now, GIs have been used for a wide variety of agricultural products like Tuscany cheese, Roquefort cheese, Bordeaux wines and Scotch whisky.
This is the first time that India is getting into the act to protect products that carry the flavour of India.
Under the Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (Trips) legislation, which was framed in 1994 under the auspices of the World Trade Organisation, any product that displays special qualities which are related to a certain geographic region is regarded as GI and protected internationally.
The GI notification for Darjeeling tea was issued by the government last week, Bansal said.
The announcement comes as a major relief to the tea industry that has been suffering huge losses, largely because the world market is flooded with spurious Darjeeling tea.
Although only nine to 10 million kg of tea is being produced every year by the gardens in Darjeeling, around 40 million kg is being sold worldwide as Darjeeling tea.
The GI status now means that only 87 tea gardens of the Darjeeling hills, enlisted by the Tea Board, can market their produce as Darjeeling tea.
This will immediately stop the pernicious practice in the tea industry of mixing Darjeeling tea with other home-grown varieties and passing them off as Darjeeling tea.
Until now, other countries were not obliged to respect the GI for Darjeeling tea because India itself had not granted it that status. But after the notification, they will be obliged to do so.
Gardens that try to pass off other teas as Darjeeling tea will become liable to be prosecuted under the GI of Good Registration and Protection Act. Those found guilty can be imprisoned for a period of up to three years along with a fine of up to Rs 25 lakh.
Importantly, the garden found defaulting will also be denotified and will cease to exist as a producer of Darjeeling tea.
The use of GIs dates back to pre-Biblical times and hoary records indicate the existence of Naxos wines and Sicilian honey in 4th century BC.
However, not everything is as pat as it sounds. Often, there's a quibble over words. One of the most famous episodes surrounds the use of the word champagne. Australian and US producers were able to sell their products as champagne till France ruthlessly enforced its GI on the term. The producers then started calling them sparkling wines and continue to do roaring business.
Perhaps there is a lesson here for the Darjeeling plantations that have just started crowing over their victory.