When an official organisation shows extraordinary zeal in granting approvals to all kinds of applications, it’s not always good news. It could well be the result of lax scrutiny or a poor understanding of the regulations. One is not quite certain what is driving the Geographical Indications Registry at Chennai to hand out the geographical indications (GI) tag like confetti but they sure need clearer guidelines on what is eligible for this cachet. It’s equally puzzling why all kinds of agricultural producers, artisans and manufacturers are rushing to apply for this form of intellectual property (IPR). Is it from a misguided notion that a GI tag is a sure-fire way of protecting their market and increasing profit?
There’s no other explanation why the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), the richest temple board in India, should seek GI protection for its famous laddoos, the sweet that is given to the millions of devotees who throng the hilltop temple of Lord Venkateshwara in Tirupati. Breaking the story, Mint newspaper of Delhi reported that an expert panel appointed by the GI Registry had studied how the laddoos were made and had recommended that it was worthy of GI status. The laddoo as every Indian knows is the indispensable, and unavoidable, marker of any celebration in India — weddings, prayer meetings, victory in exams, elections and what have you. In the Tirupati temple, in keeping with its wealth, you get richer and bigger laddoos but a laddoo that is not very different from the kind you can buy in a sweet shop or any south Indian eatery.
According to the Mint report, the TTD which makes around 50 million laddoos every year, distributes half and sells the rest. The newspaper said the TTD, which is expecting revenues of Rs 40 crore from the sale of laddoos, had sought the GI tag “after failing to curb the sale of counterfeit versions by hawkers seeking to exploit the growing demand from visitors to the temple”. This is an extraordinary premise for seeking a GI label.
If TTD wants to cut out competition and maintain a monopoly on the sale of laddoos in the temple town a trademark is what it should be seeking. It could then take counterfeiters to the courts for infringement of its special brand. But to assume that a GI tag is meant to create or protect market monopolies is wide of the mark. That the GI Registry has taken this application seriously is a matter of deep concern. Does geography have anything to do with the Tirupati laddoo? Unless the presiding deity has taken a hand in the making of this ubiquitous sweet, there is no way that this laddoo can justify a GI registration. And if the TTD’s arguments do pass muster, then other laddoo makers in Tirupati would by rights be allowed to make the laddoos, too.
Let me explain why the TTD cannot hope to keep the street vendors out of the business of making laddoos. A GI is an IPR that is related to the place of origin and protects products that have emanated from a certain region — this could be a province or town — and have characteristics that correspond to their specific location. Thus, champagne made in the Champagne region of France from locally grown varieties of grapes, and in a method perfected over decades, is a GI exclusive to that part of the country. Ditto for Scotch whiskey from Scotland, Darjeeling tea and Malabar pepper from India, etc.
A critical rationale for GIs is that they preserve cultural traditions by benefiting a community of producers. It is not as if one maker of champagne is protecting his private turf with the GI tag. There are dozens of companies and individuals distilling that special taste of Scotch.
In an earlier column, (We have our mirrors, silks, jasmines ...), I had noted that GIs were proliferating in this country at a crazy rate because unlike Europe and the US which restrict this IPR to food products, India has decided to cover the entire spectrum of products from crops and handicrafts to a host of manufactured goods. It is hard to fathom why many of the products, such as a Coimbatore wet grinder, have been favoured with a GI. Does the GI Registry’s unbounded enthusiasm have something to do with the missionary zeal with which CII in tandem with the US embassy has been promoting IPR in the country, road shows on GIs being part of the package? It’s time everyone took a cool look at the issue and came up with a strategy on how to make the most of India’s special array of GI products. Can industry associations in particular help to promote and nurture GI products here and abroad? We cannot really bank on divine intervention in such matters.