That American firms can obtain a patent for basmati rice and herbal anti-diabetic remedies that originate in India is an indication that legal protection of goods and services unique to various regions has not received critical attention at home. Legal experts point out the need to create awareness about useful legislations lying dormant. Social Scientists could only concur. While on the one hand, protection reinforces the regional and national identity of the product, GIs in developing countries would equally go a long way in empowering producers – often underprivileged workers, micro- and small-entrepreneurs.

Recent developments at the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and in many other bilateral and multilateral free trade agreement negotiations make it important for nations to be familiar with the concept of “Geographical Indications” (GI). In the year 1994 an agreement for Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS Agreement) came into force directing all member counties of WTO to enact laws for protection of GI in their respective countries latest by 1 Jan 2006.

What is a Geographical Indication? A GI is a sign used on goods that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that place of origin. Most commonly, a GI comprises the name of the place of origin of the goods. Agricultural products typically have qualities that derive from their place of production and are influenced by specific local factors such as climate and soil. Geographical indications may be used for a wide variety of agricultural products like (in India) Darjeeling tea, Kancheepuram silks, Chanderi silk sarees, Alphonso mangoes, Basmati rice, Kohlapuri sandals, Bikaneri Namkin, apples from Himachal and Kashmir, Petha from Agra, Pedha from Mathura etc.

As a WTO member country and signatory to TRIPS, the parliament of India passed the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and protection) Act 1999 in the same year. The Act provides for the registration and better protection of GIs relating to goods. While the Act does not make provision for individual ownership, any association of persons or producers or any organization or authority representing the interest of the producers of the concerned goods can apply for registration in accordance with the provisions of Section 11 of the Act.

Let us consider the case of Chanderi fabric – the first Indian product closest to being granted the GI status. Chanderi, a small town located close to river Betwa in Guna district of Madhya Pradesh, is famous for the unique silk fabric produced there. A staggering 60% of the population of 30,000 has been involved in manufacturing and trading of this fabric for centuries. Chanderi fabric is known for its sheer texture, light weight and transparency. Typically worked and fringed heavily with handmade gold dots or motifs of golden thread, the sarees have been patronised by royalty.

A Chanderi weaver operates a handloom.

There are a little over 3600 adequately skilled weaver families working in Chanderi. Typically, family members are engaged in different functions like warping, colouring and weaving. At 2 metres of fabric per day, they can jointly produce only about 7200m of fabric daily. “The rate at which the genuine weavers in Chanderi produce cloth is not enough to meet even the domestic demand. This just points to the fact that a majority of fabric being sold in the name of ‘Chanderi’ across the nation is spurious because given the limited physical capacity of the authentic weavers, it is impossible for them to produce as much fabric as is in circulation even within the domestic market at any given time,” offers Mr. Vinay Jain, Consultant Lawyer for United Nations Industrial Development Organisation’s (UNIDO) Cluster Development Project at Chanderi, one aim of which is to secure GI status for Chanderi fabric.

The introduction of the power loom and machines in other parts of the country has led to the production of similar looking but obviously spurious ‘Chanderi’. Invasion of the business by exploitative traders and dealers has created a huge economic gap between the weavers and traders. For the weavers living much below poverty line, getting their daily wage of Rs. 50 – 60 is understandably more important than meeting any standards of quality which results in inadequate utilisation of existing skill. Also, the weavers and master-weavers lack the financial resources to buy and store raw material, create and circulate samples of products besides lacking knowledge about designing and market opportunities. On the whole, the production of silk in Chanderi is marked by total exploitation of weavers in general and gross violation of fundamental rights of women and children in particular.

On the whole, Chanderi faces many problems common to GI products the world over, particularly in developing countries. There are hardly any parallels to the fabric produced in Chanderi, and this is also typical to most GI products. These trends only reinforce the need for protections.

Chanderi Development Foundation (CDF) points towards a way out. Formed with the active support and involvement of the UNIDO under its Cluster Development Project, CDF is a registered, non-profit organisation. It aims, among other things, to apply for the registration of the products of Chanderi and act for the protection of legal rights of traders and weavers under the Geographical Indication Act 1999. The Foundation also aims to represent Chanderi for the protection of its products and the business interests of the weavers in various international fora, particularly the World Trade Organisation (WTO). CDF says it will also strive for the creation of better business avenues and greater networking to enhance the market for Chanderi products besides promoting co-operation among local weavers for production and sale at handicrafts/cottage level and to enhance profit.

“Chanderi fabric has an enormous export potential. But the way the production and supply chain is managed is totally unprofessional and utterly unorganised. No labelling, product specification or customised packing methods are employed,” says Vinay Jain. He also points out that Chanderi products suffer from lack of product diversification and limited value addition. Also, very few contemporary designers have worked in this area leading to Chanderi losing out as a fabric for the fashion conscious buyer.

Creative brand management and better production and supply chains is perhaps most crucial for Chanderi given the possibility of channelising production through Small and Medium-sized Enterprises (SMEs). SMEs are often the driving force behind the innovation that leads to new products, brands and creative designs continuously appearing on the market. Their innovative and creative capacity, however, is not always fully exploited as many SMEs are not aware of the intellectual property system or the protection it can provide for their inventions, brands, and designs. If left unprotected, a good invention or creation may be lost to larger competitors who are in a better position to commercialise the product.

Not only do Geographical Indications reinforce the regional and national identity of select products, the system can help developing countries empower underprivileged workers and small-entrepreneurs.
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Protection through the GI system would perhaps be the first step towards a total overhaul of production and commercial practices in Chanderi and go a long way towards strengthening and developing the cluster. The new generation and the women in Chanderi are keen to learn the skill and Chanderi products are amenable for diversification to suit latest fashion trends. Moreover, development of an export market of apparel fabric and furnishings is not a far-fetched thought. GI protection in clusters like Chanderi can convert potential opportunities into ground realities.

“The Registrar’s office at Chennai was originally considering applications for many different potential GIs – some of them world famous names. However, all but Chanderi’s application were rejected on grounds of inadequacy in the application documentation,” offers Vinay Jain. However, in the process of filing the application for what could go down in history as India’s first GI, he has also discovered many legal lacunae in the Indian Parliamentary Act. Some of these and other aspects of GI protection in India will be covered in Part 2 of this report.