In February, an application seeking GI tag for the ‘Madurai Marikolunthu’ was filed with the Geographical Indications Registry, here in Chennai. The ‘Marikolunthu’ is an aromatic plant, which is used traditionally to make garlands and is also used in religious ceremonies. Last year in April, in the middle of the pandemic, the all-time favourite sweetmeat, the ‘Kovilpatti Kadalai Mittai’, had been granted a GI tag.
A GI tag is a name or a logo used on specific products about a geographic region or place of origin that grants the authorised user or manufacturer certain privileges. The tag certifies that a certain product has been made using traditional methodologies within the said region, using ingredients local to the area and is a reaffirmation of the product’s reputation. It offers legal protection to the producers of such goods or produce and prevents unauthorised use of GI tagged items by other sellers.
In 2019, Tamil Nadu accounted for as many as 31 of the 344 products in total that have been granted the GI tag. This inspires the question – how beneficial are such tags to boost the local economy, and do such tags hold relevance in an increasingly globalised world? It may be recalled that two decades ago, India, as a member of the World Trade Organisation, introduced the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999, which was affected from September 2003. The Darjeeling Tea became the first product in India to bag a GI tag in 2004-2005. Since then, India has embarked on a rush of getting its indigenous products a GI tag.
Success stories include the likes of the Araku Valley Arabica Coffee from AP, whose GI tagging helped it find recognition among baristas in France. The Wayanad Robusta and Chikmagalur Arabica coffee have also been granted GIs that have added to their global appeal. But there have been bitter disagreements too. The mysurpa, or Mysore Pak became the topic of a split between Karnataka and Tamil Nadu, when traders from the former state fearing that TN might have an upper hand on the sweetmeat, went ahead and applied for a GI tag for the same. A similar battle ensued between West Bengal and Odisha, two states with two separate GIs pertaining to the same sweet – the roshogolla, and rasagola which is in recognition of the taste and texture of the two regional variants.
Even religious institutions have jumped on the GI bandwagon. A case in point is the Tirupati Balaji temple which bagged a GI tag for its laddoos after which the Panchamirtham of the Palani Murugan Temple also was bestowed a GI tag. Trade bodies seeking a GI for the Ambur Biryani and Madurai Jigarthanda have said that the proliferation of numerous overseas eateries promising these regional specialties prompted their appeal for a GI tag.
The futility of such measures becomes evident in the cases of GI-tagged products such as the traditional handcrafted Dindigul locks and the Kandangi sari from TN. The fact that these products are competing in offline and online markets flooded with cheaper alternatives calls into question the significance of the GI-tagging. The process has also been criticised on account of adding confusion to the already beleaguered agricultural sector of India – by restricting the sale of similar varieties of rice, and similar food grains grown by different states.
This is not to suggest that enterprises involved in upholding customs, like business or agricultural practices, discontinue their traditional way of life. Both enterprises and the government must keep pace with the times and do their bit in sharing resources and profits and find innovative ways of expanding the market – like tying up with e-tailers with wider logistical networks while being cognisant of IP rights and trademarks. Else, the idea of GI tagging, much like protectionism, will prove to be a limiting exercise.