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The quest for a GI tag

Asian countries soon realized the potential of this unique form of protection being extended to their indigenous domestic interests.

SHAMBHU PRASAD CHAKRABARTY AND SANTANU PANDA |

A Geographical Indication (GI) sign, used on products with a specific geographical origin, which possess qualities or a reputation attributable to that origin, caught the popular imagination in India courtesy the fame and benefits that, for instance, Champagne enjoys, strongly protected as it is a “Protected Geographical Indication (PGI)” since 1967. So was the story with Roquefort cheese. In India, Darjeeling tea looked like a perfect fit into the GI domain. GI, a legal norm of European origin, was transplanted worldwide, including countries of Asia, through the World Trade Organisation’s Trade Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS) Agreement in 1995.

The TRIPS norms were, however, generally adopted without adequate consciousness about the GI norms then prevailing in Europe. During this stage, India was mandated to implement the TRIPS Agreement without any similar domestic practices prevalent. Consequently, efforts were made to understand the GI concept and explore avenues to use it in our jurisdiction. India’s GI journey started with the registration of Darjeeling Tea in 2004- 05 after the enactment of the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection Act, 1999) in 2003.

The journey since then has been quite fascinating though there is limited public awareness around it. GI is an identifier that associates a product to a particular region. It is a designation indicating quality, reputation, or other characteristics that are essentially attributable to its geographic origin. This norm migrated to Asian countries in general and India in particular, with the specific adoption theory at its very best in Section 2 (e) of the GI Act, 1999: “Geographical Indication, in relation to goods, means an indication which identifies such goods as agricultural goods, natural goods or manufactured goods as originating, or manufactured in the territory of a country, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristics of such goods is essentially attributable to its geographical origin and in case where such goods are manufactured goods one of the activities of either the production or of processing or preparation of the goods concerned takes place in such territory, region or locality, as the case may be.” Asian countries soon realized the potential of this unique form of protection being extended to their indigenous domestic interests.

An immediate economic interest could be seen in mushrooming indigenous geographical indications associated with such names. India soon followed suit and Bengal has seen a spurt in activities around GI tags in recent times. Matters have received a fillip given the popularity of various food delicacies, which led to the filing of multiple sweetmeats for GI tags in West Bengal in particular. Currently, four delicacies, Bardhaman’s Sitabhog and Mihidana, Joynagar’s Moa and BanglarRosogolla, have been registered successfully under the Act. Things got complicated with Bengal’s rosogolla, when Odisha raised objections, claiming the GI tag for its own rosogolla.

It was not easy to decide the case in favour of Bengal but the Bengali historian, Haripada Bhowmik, unravelled facts from the pages of the past to establish the origin of rosogolla in Bengal beyond any reasonable doubt. The complications and subsequent determination of the rosogolla case raised immense interest among ordinary people, popularising the concept of GI for the masses.

Today, the makers of Bengal rosogolla have benefitted immensely in the larger Indian market and beyond. The increase in popularity of this sweet, triggered encouragement to popularise other similar products. Tulaipanji rice and Joynagar Moya (consignments of Jaynagar Moa and Bardhaman Mihidana are exported regularly to the Kingdom of Bahrain) are examples of such exposition in recent years in West Bengal. Such successful registration will entitle a product to a much-hyped GI tag that promises more hope of livelihood opportunity over mere legal protection against infringement.

The GI tag does attract a premium and qualityconscious customer base that consistently looks for the authenticity of the origin of a product and, with that, a global platform to showcase local delicacies and expertise. The tag also assures strategic and more robust protection of the artisans, small-scale farmers and business owners in that bigger platform challenging counterfeit and fake products from deceiving prospective customers.

However, there are several measures that the applicant must be aware of, vis-à-vis specific indications that are non-registerable under the GI Act. An indication that would likely confuse, contrary to law, be scandalous, obscene, likely to hurt any religious susceptibilities, or any other conditions laid down in Section 9 of the Act, needs to be understood. An application for GI may also fail at the registration stage if the applicant fails to reply (counter statement) to an objection raised within two months of the said objection. The applicant should understand the provisions of the Act before applying for a GI tag.

The application is to be filed by the association (with its details) with the Registrar, Geographical Indications Registry, at Chennai with the application fees of Rs 5000, primarily with a substantial write-up about the product, including its unique history, location, and technical specifications along with other details referred to in Section 11 of The Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999. As the concept of extending GI protection to local products evolves, two simultaneous challenges must be addressed. First, how to give domestic geographical indications the same protection given to non-domestic ones. Second, find ways to harmonize domestic business conflicts over uses of the same geographical indication.

One significant initiative of the West Bengal National University of Juridical Sciences (WBNUJS) in recent years has been to take advantage of this consciousness to economically strengthen the indigenous and tribal people’s degenerating Traditional Knowledge (TK) through appropriate research and development. Apart from conducting the muchrequired assessment and documentation of TK amongst the PVTGs of West Bengal by the Centre for Regulatory Studies Governance and Public Policy, the Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade, the Chair of the WBNUJS has successfully assisted in filing seven GIs for registration through its GI Drive Mission, till July 2022, including, Purulia’s lac, Shantiniketan’s Batik, Natungram’s Wooden Doll, Begampur Saree, Shantiniketan’s Ektara, Kolkata Jewellery, Khakra and Gargare Pithe. Generally, an application awaits preliminary scrutiny.

An examination process must be successfully completed to secure the publication in the GI Journal, Geographical Indications Journal available at (https://search.ipindia.gov.in/IPOJournal/Journal/GIR), which will act as a public notice inviting objections, after which it will be registered, if there is no objection raised by anyone. The GI Mission drive has encouraged and assisted many local communities in applying for the GI tag. Original flavours like Rabri from RabriGram in Hooghly District may soon be enlisted as a GI registered product from West Bengal, courtesy the efforts of Dr Pinaki Ghosh, Chair, Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade.

A systematic impact assessment study of various GIs registered in West Bengal can be and should be undertaken at the earliest to evaluate the true impact of the GI tag. The research output will ideally encourage investors to focus on local indigenous products, promoting sustainable livelihood amongst the rural populace in general and various local communities in particular. Extending the protection of these products on the international stage can be a game changer for the ever-depleting traditional knowledge. A holistic approach to empowering the rural traditional knowledge holders can be the new norm of G.I. protection in the years to come in India and beyond.