The Tamil Nadu (TN) Handicrafts Development Corporation has sought to attain Geographical Indication (GI) status for the Pattamadai mats of Tirunelveli district and Nachiarkoil lamps of Thanjavur. According to the Assistant Registrar of Trade Marks and Geographical Indications in Chennai, Chinnaraja G. Naidu, the handicrafts will be granted this status by February this year.

GI status for handicrafts in TN comes after a four-year gap. The last product registered was the Thanjavur doll in 2008-2009.

GI identifies a product as originating from a particular place. According to the Geographical Indication of Goods Act (Registration and Protection) 1999, it means that “a given quality, reputation or other characteristics of such goods is essentially attributable to its geographical region.” Handlooms such as Pochampalli ikkat from Andhra Pradesh and Kanch

eepuram Silks from Tamil Nadu as well as handicrafts such as the Channapatna dolls from Karnataka have been granted GI status.

Why GI?

One of the reasons the GI Act came into effect in 2003 was the serious threat that fake handicrafts and handlooms posed to the livelihood of thousands of artisans. Mass-produced fake Pashmina shawls, Kashmiri carpets and even Ganesha idols with differently-shaped eyes were flooding the Indian market from both within and outside the country. Imitation products were also being sold abroad.

Sabita Radhakrishna, textile designer and member, Crafts Council of India (CCI), says, “Fake Banarasi sarees, for example, were being sold in India. This severely impacted the artisans. Looms were deserted because of acute poverty and diminishing demand, and many artisans committed suicide.”

By helping producers differentiate their products from others in the market and stamping them “original,” GI seeks to increase producer’s income, prevent misappropriation of products, protect traditional knowledge and enhance rural development.

Does it work?

It has been nearly ten years since the Act has been enacted. However experts rue the absence of an effective post-GI mechanism.

“GI has not been a hundred percent successful,” says Sabita. “Fake Kancheepuram sarees continue to be sold in well-known outlets. As a result of this, the technique of production has been lost and the art is languishing.”

Since 2004, more than a hundred products in the country have been granted GI status. Among them are Chanderi fabrics, Mysore silk, Kota doria, Kullu shawls, Muga silk, Mysore traditional paintings, Thanjavur art plates, Arani silk, Kutch embroidery, Kashmir pashmina, Banaras sarees, Gadwal sarees, and Phulkari embroidery.

However, Shamnad Basheer, Intellectual Property Chair at the National University of Juridical Sciences, warns that numbers alone do not signify anything. “GI is just a means to an end and not an end in itself. We ought to be wary of gloating over numbers and cocooning ourselves into believing that this automatically converts to more prosperity for artisans. The real challenge is to convert impressive GI registration numbers to bigger markets and more money for the communities,” he says.

What are the reasons for this? “There are too many products to protect and not enough energy is invested in this.” “Traditions are languishing and techniques in production are being lost. I think the main reason lies in the fact that we simply don’t care about our rich heritage and culture.”

The real problem

The real problem, i.e., questions related to distribution, export and state support, are not addressed by GI, believes Lawrence Liang, legal researcher and lawyer who works at the Alternative Law Forum. “Granting GIs does not address those problems but instead creates new ones. Kolhapuri chappals, for instance, are manufactured by all communities and are mobile. This is a flexible practice that has ended up being frozen. GIs need to do more.”

Problems such as misappropriation, lack of advertising and promotion, and lack of state support have been articulated by organisations such as the CCI but little has been done to tackle these issues.

Take this example. A hundred registered GIs and yet not one case of misappropriation has been reported over the past 10 years.

Chinnaraja Naidu says, “Infringements do take place. The proprietor or user can register a complaint with the police if they find out that their innovations are being copied. However, not one case has been registered so far as people do not know whom to blame for infringement or whom to approach.”

Better awareness

He also adds that awareness about the benefits accrued by GI is mostly absent. Sabita disagrees.

“Artisans are much more aware of their rights now than before,” she says. “We also have to blame ourselves. There are so many products to protect and no energy is invested in this. We simply don’t care about our rich heritage and culture. Other countries make commendable efforts in protecting their culture; we do not.”

TN has the third largest number of registered GIs for handicrafts and handlooms after Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh. It seems crucial to reflect upon whom GI has benefitted and how effective the mechanism has been over the past decade.

(Radhika studied at JNU in Delhi before joining the Asian College of Journalism, Chennai.)