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Power-loom masquerading as a Banaras handloom, Kantha and Phulkari embroidery replicated by silk-screen, Telia Rumal weaves and Ajrakh hand-blocks printed on a roller machine…the stories are endless. The unauthorized business of churning out copies of traditional handlooms through mass-production technologies has become a win-win business model for many.

For weavers and other textile communities who are at the receiving end, this has led to a huge loss in income, livelihood and community skills passed down generations. This is only compounded by feelings of marginalization and helplessness.

In India, one protective route became possible with the enactment of the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act of 1999, in force since 2003. The idea was, and is, to provide the legal protection of geographical indication (GI) to products. Though commonly given to natural, agricultural and manufactured goods attributable to a geographic origin, the GI tag also enables producers to protect those goods associated with, or deriving from, local cultural traditions. This is what the law states: A geographical indication is a name or sign used on certain products which corresponds to a specific geographical location or origin (eg. a town, region, or country). The use of a GI may act as a certification that the product possesses certain qualities, is made according to traditional methods, or enjoys a certain reputation, due to its geographical origin.

The Act can be used to protect the moral right and intellectual property of craft communities and the potential economic benefit arising from their creations. It confers the exclusive right to brand, market and certify the quality and genuineness of GI goods to the holders of the registration. Production and sale by anyone other than the producers is a punishable offence.

More than 270 GIs have been granted in the areas of traditional arts, crafts and handlooms. This is a noteworthy number that includes traditional handlooms, and indicates that this law is being taken seriously by the sector. From Banarasi brocades, Paithani weaves, Uppada Jamdani, Bomkai, Ilkal, Venkatagiri, Baluchari and Gadwal to Balaramapuram weaves and many others, all have acquired the GI status.

But many challenges remain. For while GI registration is pursued with seriousness, it hasn’t been possible to actually use this tool to protect crafts.

Second, GI certification is valid only for a decade, so it has to be applied for again. Iconic handlooms like the Pochampally Ikat, Salem Fabrics, Chanderi, Solapur Chaddar, Kotpad weaves, Mysore Silks, Kancheepuram Silk, Kota Doria, Kullu Shawls, Odisha Ikats and others—all of which are covered under the GI law—have completed, or are about to complete, their decade of GI registration. Fifty products—not all of them handloom—have sent in applications again.

A third issue: GI is about physical, not cultural, geography, so what happens when weavers migrate to another place? It could be due to economic, natural or man-made disasters; invitations from patrons to resettle; family feuds or marriage; war and civil strife. Skilled weavers take with them the traditions, methods and oral knowledge that is their community inheritance.

Consider these instances. Many pockets of weavers in West Bengal settled there after the partition of the state and, subsequently, the creation of Bangladesh. In Kutch, Ajrakh printers moved after the 2001 earthquake from Dhamadka to the newly created village of Ajrakhpur because the village waters got muddied, leading to the dulling of hand-dyed colours.

How then can we ensure that the GI law is used effectively for the benefit of weavers?

GI is a legal instrument, but the interest of the practitioners of these traditions should be at the heart of the debate. Civil society, weaver cooperatives, design schools and other stakeholders need to develop a guide to the process that comes into play once the GI stamp is granted. It would be worth investigating and analysing the range of issues that obstruct the management of GIs.

The first step should be to adopt a handloom cluster registered under the GI law and initiate steps to create a brand, with guidance perhaps from corporate houses and marketers who have created successful brands. Covering the bases—from ensuring that quality parameters are met for each product, to certifying that the hand-weaving process meets GI requirements—would be essential. This would also mean that where quality and process norms are not met, legal action is taken against what are essentially fakes.

The writer is the chairperson of the Crafts Revival Trust.

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