The Telegraph
Since 1st March, 1999
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- Geographical indication for products is a many-sided issue

Kolhapur University and the Central Leather Research Institute are to develop training for leather workers making the famous Kolhapuri chappals and to apply to make Kolhapur a geographical indication for the chappals. Training is an excellent idea. If this includes design, it would be even better. Making Kolhapur a geographical indication is intended not only to stop other countries from selling such chappals (there are none today). It is to stop craftsmen in other regions of India who have always produced Kolhapuri chappals, which will now be only those made in Kolhapur. While they have not said what will happen to the others who do so, presumably there will be legal and financial sanctions against them.

India has been slow in protecting the rights that its heritage gives it. Traditional Indian agricultural products can be easily imitated. The development of high-speed machines can quickly identify the basic chemical ingredients of many naturally occurring products. Chemical equivalents can then be formulated, tested and marketed for substantial profit. New technologies enable scientists to imitate nature in the laboratory. Genetic engineering allows the changing of the DNA of natural products and creates entirely new or excellent imitations of existing ones. Developed countries (pharmaceutical companies, chemicals, biotech companies and others) have the resources and the technologies to take household remedies from India and synthesize them for the same purpose, with no compensation to the Indians who first found and developed the uses for the natural product.

The examples of the Council for Scientific and Industrial Research's fight to save neem for India, the fight of voluntary organizations against the patent for Basmati rice granted to Rice-Tech of Texas, the attempts to safeguard our rights for the word Darjeeling (for tea), illustrate the need for vigilance. It is a complex and expensive business and there are many natural products that we must protect for Indian rights.

This battle started over the intellectual property rights demanded by European countries over natural products like cheeses, table wines, meat-based products, fruits, vegetables, cereals, fish, meat and so on. They claimed ownership over the name and the nature of cheeses like Camembert, Parmesan, feta, Gorgonzola; wines like burgundy, sherry, port, Chablis, champagne. The United States of America, composed as it is of immigrants from all the countries in which these products originated, makes all of these, and felt that such proprietary rights would wound its producers and deprive its consumers. That is a problem they will no doubt resolve.

Granting status as a 'protected designation of origin' under the clause in the World Trade Organization relating to geographical indicators means only certain regions can produce the product. Other regions and countries must import it from the protected region. Food products are sometimes unique because of local soil, water, climate, cultivation methods. There could have been generations of experimentation and tradition behind them. It is only right that the people who developed the product enjoy the fruits of trading in it. There are issues for other countries where the same product has been produced by migrants and must be dealt with.

Trade related intellectual property rights in the WTO defines a geographical indicator as one 'which identifies a good as originating in the territory of a country or a region or a locality in that territory where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the good is essentially attributable to geographical origin'. It is not a trademark. A trademark indicates a monopoly over a particular mark, exercised by the producer of a good to distinguish his goods from similar goods manufactured by others. But geographical indications are protected by a variety of national laws and a wide range of legal theories including trademarks, competition, consumer protection and special laws for the protection of geographical indications.

Mysore silks now have a geographical indication. It will prevent their being made or marketed in China or elsewhere or made by machine, and passed off to the unwary consumer as the original product. It protects the Indian craftsman. It is not clear whether Mysore relates to the city, the old princely state, or other regions in India where similar products might be made.

But it is the extension of geographical indications to arts, crafts and other manufactured products, especially within India, that must provoke controversy. When the Czech Republic claimed geographical indication status for 'BUD' and gave it to the brewer Budejovicky Budvar, the European Union affirmed it. However, courts in Austria and Hungary ruled that the company's traded beer was not a reference to the town of Ceske Budejovice as was claimed. That is, BUD could also be made by the company elsewhere, as it was. To extend this argument, Mysore silks or Kolhapuri chappals need not be made only in Mysore or Kolhapur; they might be made elsewhere in India.

There are proposals in India now to apply for GI status for chanderi silks, Pochampally ikkat, Solapur fabric, folk music, folk dance, painting styles (perhaps like Mughal, Madhubani, and so on) and many other cultural manifestations. Despite our enthusiasm in recent years for free trade, like other countries, we must protect and encourage our producers. This is especially so in international markets. We do not want our handcrafted products to be imitated by other countries or by cheaper factory made imitations and called by the same names and passed off as our handicraft. Anything we do to protect these property rights against encroachment by other countries is in India's interests.

It is unfortunate that there is talk also of similarly protecting folk and other arts. Should Indians settled in the US or others who are interested in, for example, yakshagana, be prevented from practising and training in it' Should they even be charged a fee for using the name' The questions are ridiculous.

However, it is the application of geographical indications within the country that must bother us. Kolhapuri chappals are made in many villages within a large radius from Kolhapur. Present state boundaries do not reflect the commonalities of a region's language, race, culture or economics. The same chappals are made in small towns and villages in Maharashtra and in Karnataka. Are we going to shut down thousands of craftsmen who eke out meagre livelihoods making these chappals because they do not live in Kolhapur or in Maharashtra' Such a ban will only exacerbate the interstate problems that already exist between Maharashtra and Karnataka. If extended to other states and other products, we will become a nation of states that do not exchange goods and ideas with each other. The CLRI and Kolhapur University must concentrate on education and training, at which they are good and not intrude into applying GI within India.

What producers of non-natural manufactured products must do if given the status of a GI is to set out detailed standards that must be followed by anyone wanting to use the indicator as a label. They must have a system to inspect and approve or disapprove the produce. Design and central marketing could be offered to all producers. A small fee might be charged to defray the expenses. The producer might be required for example, to say, 'Kolhapuri chappals', Made in Athani'. This will fully inform the consumer that the product has passed the standards, and was made not in Kolhapur, but in another place. This could apply to other manufactured products with GI status marketed within India. It could help the craftsmen because there would be centralized design, training and marketing.

CLRI and other research institutions as well as universities must 'stick to their knitting' at which they have been effective over the years. The GI status issue should be left to political economists and legal experts.

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