It is often considered that geographical indications (GI) can be used to protect traditional knowledge and communities. Hence, many countries, including India, have adopted GI laws.
Historically, the concept of GI has evolved from principles such as unfair trade practices, consumer protection against deception, ‘passing off’ (when some products are passed off as authentic GI), and so on.
The modern form of GI protection originated in France, where protection was given to products that met the geographical origin requirements and the quality standards associated with these origins.
It was hence helpful in protecting the interests of not only the consumers of the product, but also its producers, who could extract some “reputation rent”.
However, it is easier said than done, and mere GI registration can hardly do anything to the producers and communities. The GI registration of muga of Assam State is a case in point, which is, incidentally, the first registered GI of the North-Eastern region.
The Assam Science Technology and Environment Council (ASTEC), a semi-government agency, took up the process of applying for GI for muga in 2005, and managed to get it registered in 2006. Obviously, ASTEC did not have any commercial interest.
Technically, muga is a fit case of GI registration due to the socio-cultural value of the product, and its uniqueness. Registration was secured under classes 23, 24, 25, 27 and 31 for raw silk yarns and threads, textile and textile goods, including a large number of items as well as for the cocoon, and for the whole map of Assam.
Muga’s uniqueness to the State can be understood from the very fact that the silkworm — Antheraea assamensis — from which muga is produced, derives its name from the State.
There is documented use of the product since ancient times, even finding mention in Kautilya’s Arthashastra. While the soil and climate play an important role in making muga what it is, the knowledge of the farmers is also an important factor.
While ASTEC is the registered proprietor of the muga GI, till date, there are no registered users. Only two entrepreneurs have so far come forward to register themselves as users; their applications are still pending.
No producers, either of silk or of muga products, came forward for GI registration. No producer/producers’ association from Sualkuchi — the hub of silk weaving in Assam — has as yet come forward, as there is very little awareness.
Some interest has been expressed by the Sericulture Department of the State to be a registered user.
While the price of muga has been rising over the last few years, that has little to do with GI registration. The reason for the high prices of the muga yarn are — diminishing area under muga cultivation owing to rubber cultivation; diseases at the cocoon stage; loss incurred due to the outdoor nature of muga rearing, and so on. Nevertheless, higher prices have not been able to encourage the farmers to hold on to muga cultivation.
As a result, muga has become almost three times more expensive, compared with other similar varieties of silk.
Apparel with 100 per cent muga yarn is rarely produced these days, except to cater to the State emporiums, or for special orders — owing to the high price of muga yarn.
Muga is often blended with imported tussar silk from China or with other indigenous silk yarn such as pat. However, this situation can lead to complications in enforcement of GI protection of muga. While protection of muga as a variety of silk may be relatively easy, protecting the traditional muga weavers with specialised skills will not be easy.
Will the weavers who make fabrics of mixed yarn, or weave both muga and non-muga fabrics, qualify for GI registration? If not, the weavers are unlikely to benefit from GI registration.
Moreover, if GI is likely to raise the price of muga, how will weavers benefit? They feel the rise in price of muga has actually harmed them. Meanwhile, powerloom is getting popular for muga weaving, dealing a further blow to handloom weavers. Another complication may come from the fact that muga is often referred to as ‘Assam silk’ outside Assam, though Assam produces different types of silk, besides muga.
Regarding the setting up of a quality control and inspection mechanism, as required by the law, ASTEC has proposed employing the services of the Seri Bio Lab of the Institute of Advanced study in Science and Technology, Guwahati, for quality control. An inspection body is yet to be constituted.
Hence, at this stage, even after six years of registration, GI in muga cannot give any guarantee of quality or authenticity.
When GI is related to a reputation of product whose uniqueness is linked to soil, water and climate of a particular region, consumers can show a preference for GI-certified products. However, when the GI is skills-based, it becomes less workable.
GI can only prevent the use of protected marks or indications; it does not protect the knowledge, or the technologies embracing that knowledge as such.
This essentially means the famous Banarasi sari can be produced anywhere in the world but it cannot be named “Banarasi sari”. For a rational consumer, it might not make much sense to buy GI certified products at a premium, if the same product is available elsewhere.
Another important issue that is evident in the muga case, as in most Indian cases, is that GI registration in India is done not by the actual producers, but by some third-party — either in Government or an NGO, with or without commercial interest and even traders.
In such cases, producers very often are not even aware of the existence of GI. In such a situation, producers or the people who are the depository of knowledge are unlikely to be benefited.
(The authors are with The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), New Delhi.)