New Delhi: The first award of a geographical indication (GI) tag to a complex food, rather than a simple farm product like the Nagpur orange, has not gone unchallenged for long.
Within a month of the Tirupati laddu being deemed GI-worthy, two separate litigants have protested the decision, claiming that it violates the spirit of the GI Act.
In the Madras high court, a petitioner named J. Mohanraj has, in a wide-ranging complaint about religion and intellectual property rights (IPRs), called the GI-protected laddu “exemplary of commercialization of divine affairs”.
Divine discontent: A man carries trays of Tirupati laddus. Dinodia
Another Thiruvananthapuram-based academic, R.S. Praveen Raj, wrote to the Supreme Court within a week after the 15 September GI recognition, but is now considering withdrawing his letter and joining the fight in Chennai.
GI is an intellectual property right, which identifies a good as originating in a certain region where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of the product is essentially attributable to its geographical origin. Kashmir pashmina, Darjeeling tea and Kancheepuram silk have all been granted GIs.
The Madras high court has posted the case for hearing on 2 November. A verdict, when it comes, could alter the GI landscape dramatically, either paving the way for a rush of similar applications or considerably sharpening the Act’s focus.
For the Tirumala Tirupati Devasthanam (TTD), the trust administering the Tirupati temple, its laddu involves serious business. In 2008-09, it made roughly 50 million laddus, spending Rs60 crore in the process and expecting to earn from their sale at least Rs40 crore.
Unsurprisingly then, when vendors in the temple town began to sell laddus on their own, TTD sent its security personnel after them. The campaign to seek legal protection, in the form of the GI tag, was merely TTD’s new front in a long-running war.
“The laddus are not produced anywhere in the world and are very unique in terms of quality, reputation and other characteristics, which go into its making,” TTD’s application read. “Being a food item, it derives its sanctity, reputation and uniqueness from its being offered as naivedyam (offering) to the Lord. The laddu gets reputation not from its taste alone, but from its sanctity.”
Represented by law firm Anand and Anand, TTD began to seek GI protection a little over a year ago. G. Muthukumaar, a GI specialist who worked extensively on the Tirupati laddu case at Anand and Anand before leaving recently to start his own firm, calls it “the first religious commodity anywhere in the world to get a GI tag, and also the GI-protected product with the smallest area of production—the premises of the temple itself”.
Besides the larger question of allowing religion into the IPR arena, TTD’s exclusive claim on the laddu is one of the technical flaws that Praveen Raj, a former patent examiner himself, sees in the GI award.
“In the case of Kancheepuram silk, for instance, the benefit goes to all the weavers, but here, the only beneficiary is the TTD,” he says. “The GI Act is meant to benefit collective groups or societies. It isn’t meant to create a new monopoly.”
But Muthukumaar, who calls the grant “perfectly valid”, disagrees. “All IPR rights are private rights,” he says. “There’s no power under the GI law in India that restrains a single entity like the TTD from applying. It doesn’t talk about community rights or private rights.”
Asked whether any restaurant would now be able to apply for a GI tag on its own minor variation of an otherwise common dish, Muthukumaar grants the analogy, but is quick to pinpoint the distinction. “The entire GI legislation revolves around the concept of uniqueness,” he says. In the case of the laddu, that uniqueness “comes from its sanctity”, because it is an offering made within the temple.
In which case, Praveen Raj retorts, TTD hardly needs GI protection. “Why don’t they simply tell people that the authentic laddu is only available on the premises, and that the laddus sold outside are fakes?” he asks, reasoning that pilgrims seeking the genuinely blessed laddus will buy them only in the temple. “So the TTD’s intention is obviously just the commercialization of faith.”