From Alphonso to feni: India’s GI journey has few hits, more misses

A feni cellar. According to Hansel Vaz, founder of Cazulo premium Feni and a second-generation distiller, none of the major brands use the GI tag because the manufacturing process has not been standardized.  (File photo: courtesy hansel vaz)
A feni cellar. According to Hansel Vaz, founder of Cazulo premium Feni and a second-generation distiller, none of the major brands use the GI tag because the manufacturing process has not been standardized. (File photo: courtesy hansel vaz)

Summary

  • Close to 500 products have been included in India’s geographical indications registry. But most are yet to make a mark

New Delhi: To stay true to an art form often extracts a price on the artist. That is how 48-year-old V. Gopi Raju feels. A fifth-generation artist skilled in Thanjavur paintings, Raju still follows the traditional methods and ingredients that his ancestors used, at a time when cheaper counterfeits have flooded the market.

Thanjavur, or Tanjore, a district on the east coast of Tamil Nadu, situated on the fertile plains of Cauvery river, is known as the rice bowl of the state. It is also famous for its vivid gold-plated paintings which were once patronized by the Chola, Nayaka and Maratha rulers, dating back to 1600 AD.

“I am teaching my son the art form but I do not want him to take this up as a profession," Raju says over the phone. Raju’s father T. Venkatesa Raja is a renowned artist who won a Shilp Guru award—the highest honour in the Indian handicrafts sector—from the President in 2015.

Back in 2006, the art form found a place in India’s geographical indication (GI) registry. GI is used to identify and protect agricultural, natural and manufactured products originating from a particular geographical area. The purpose is to prevent unauthorized use, boost international sales and promote economic prosperity of producers. A GI-tagged product is also supposed to be an identifier of its quality and reputation.

However, according to Raju, the GI certification of Thanjavur paintings have meant little beyond a cultural recognition for the art. The paintings cost at least 6,000 and goes up to 25 lakh a piece, depending on the size and craftsmanship. “But many artists now use cheaper raw materials to cut costs. There is no monitoring or quality check to tell a fake from an original. Even government emporiums sell these counterfeit paintings," Raju says.

Till end November, 496 products have earned a GI tag from the office of the Controller General of Patents, Designs and Trademarks, under the central commerce ministry. More additions are in the pipeline. These include agricultural products like litchis from Bihar, hand embroidered garments like Lucknow chikan and food preparations like Bikaneri bhujia, a savory snack from Rajasthan.

But the fate of most of these products are not vastly different from that of Thanjavur paintings. The registrations are a record of India’s diverse cultural and agricultural heritage but in most cases did not translate into better economic opportunities for producers. Very few products have a global footprint, except some like Basmati rice, Alphonso mangoes grown in coastal Maharashtra, and Darjeeling tea from West Bengal. This is unlike global success stories like the Tequila from Mexico, coffee from Columbia and Scotch whiskey from the UK.

The objective behind GI registrations is to empower communities and protect their collective intellectual property, says Unnat Pandit, controller general at India’s patent office. Pandit adds that the next phase in this journey is focused on creating sustainable livelihoods and exploring global opportunities.

“India has a huge potential and can add around 15,000 products to its GI registry. Registration of products like pashmina shawl and saffron (from Kashmir), Morena gajak (a dessert from Madhya Pradesh) and textile items like Banarasi silk (from Uttar Pradesh) have benefited producer groups by expanding the market and fetching a premium price," Pandit says.

Of wine and tea

India enacted the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act in 1999. The act came into force in 2003 and the first product to be registered was Darjeeling tea.
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India enacted the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act in 1999. The act came into force in 2003 and the first product to be registered was Darjeeling tea. (Indranil Bhoumik/Mint)

Globally, the first form of GIs were introduced for wine and focused on marking out the territory of production, or terroirs, literally meaning soil in French. Some prominent examples are the Burgundy wines from France in the fifteenth century, the Port wines from Portugal and Chianti wines from Italy in the 18th century.

In the early 20th century, France used a more elaborate ‘appellations of origin’ (or a tag of origin) to protect Champagne wines. After most vineyards were destroyed during the World War I, sparkling wines from other parts of the world took over the market. So, Champagne producers got together to tell the world what differentiates their produce from other sparkling varieties. In 1936, the name Champagne was protected under French law and could only be used by producers from the Champagne region in northern France.

India’s move to create a GI registry of products was the result of a controversy. In 1997, an American company called RiceTec was granted a patent by the US patent and trademark office on Basmati rice lines. India objected as the aromatic long grain basmati rice was a premium export item, grown in parts of north India and neighbouring Pakistan. The patent was revoked in 2002.

Following the RiceTec patent case, India enacted the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act in 1999. The act came into force in 2003 and the first product to be registered was Darjeeling tea. The long leaf tea is renowned for its distinctive flavour—a result of soil chemistry, climate and growing conditions in the Darjeeling hills in north Bengal.

However, Darjeeling tea has lost much of its sheen with planters selling off their tea estates of late—their profitability plunged due to weather induced production losses and falling international demand. Darjeeling tea estates are also struggling to compete with cheaper tea grown in a similar altitude in Nepal, which is marketed globally as Himalayan tea.

Export of Darjeeling tea fell to 3 million kg in 2022, from 3.7 million kg in 2018, and is estimated to decline further in 2023. During this time, Nepal teas imported into India nearly doubled to 17.4 million kg in 2022, from 9.2 million kg in 2021.

Basmati’s tale

Basmati is India’s largest GI export commodity. But its success has been marred by quality concerns raised by international buyers.
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Basmati is India’s largest GI export commodity. But its success has been marred by quality concerns raised by international buyers. (Mint)

By all measures, Basmati is India’s largest GI export commodity—in 2022-23 India shipped 4.56 million tonnes of the aromatic rice valued at over 38,000 crore. But this success has been marred by quality concerns raised by international buyers. In recent years, basmati shipments were rejected in the European Union and the Middle East due to high pesticide residues. Experts also fear that the GI tag awarded to basmati can be contested at a later date as lab-grown varieties have replaced traditional varieties in farmers’ fields.

Besides, the growth in basmati trade has come at the cost of other traditional aromatic varieties which are often clubbed together as ‘non-basmati’ rice, penalizing farmers who cultivate them.

For instance, India banned export of non-basmati white rice in July (a 20% duty was imposed earlier in October 2022) to check rising domestic retail prices. Basmati was exempted because it is a premium variety with limited domestic demand, retailing at over 100 per kg. But in the process, other premium varieties with a small but growing export market was also banned.

An example of this is Gobindbhog rice from West Bengal, an aromatic short grain sticky rice which was included in the GI registry in 2017 and found a market in several Middle East countries. The rice is primarily grown in parts of Burdwan district in Bengal and was traditionally used to make desserts and porridges during religious festivals. In 2020-21 and 2021-22, about 23,000 tonnes of this rice was exported. But following the export curbs, local prices collapsed, hurting farmers.

Un-milled Gobindbhog paddy prices fell by around 30% after the export ban was announced, says Debasis Ghosh, a grower and member of a farmer producer company in Burdwan. “Today, a farmer growing regular (non-premium) rice varieties is earning 25% more compared to Gobindbhog (per unit of land). Rice mills and farmers are saddled with stocks which can only be liquidated at a loss," he adds.

Ignored Feni

Due to lack of monitoring and authentication, the volumes of fake Feni sold in the market have increased. Some sell it for as low as  <span class='webrupee'>₹</span>60 a bottle.
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Due to lack of monitoring and authentication, the volumes of fake Feni sold in the market have increased. Some sell it for as low as 60 a bottle.

While the global history of GI began with alcoholic drinks centuries ago, India has been late to recognize and promote its indigenous craft spirits, instead referring to them as country liquor. So far, two local brews have made it to the GI registry, cashew feni from Goa in 2009 and Judima rice wine from Assam in 2021.

The origin of feni in Goa is traced to Portuguese colonizers who introduced cashew cultivation back in the 16th century. The liquor is made from fermented cashew apples, a potent drink with fruity and spicy notes. However, a GI tag has not altered its fortunes or made it widely available, even within India.

According to Hansel Vaz, founder of Cazulo premium feni, and a second-generation distiller, none of the major brands use the GI tag because the manufacturing process has not been standardized. Large volumes cannot be produced using traditional processes like earthen pots for fermentation or bamboo pipes for distilling.

“Due to lack of monitoring and authentication, the volumes of fake feni sold in the market have increased. Some sell it for as low as 60 for a bottle which is damaging for the industry," Vaz says. He adds that producers are also struggling with archaic laws. For instance, feni cannot be showcased or sold at airports, a privilege reserved for Indian made foreign liquor (IMFL) and imported spirits. Manufacturers also cannot sell feni in other states due to prohibitively high license fees (for instance, 25,000 lakh per label in Delhi) and taxes.

“What we need is a national heritage status for indigenous spirits and a strategy to promote them," Vaz says.

Unreal Alphonsos

Some allege that mangoes from Karnataka and Gujarat are often sold in the market as Alphonso, a variety that originally comes from the Ratnagiri region of coastal Maharashtra. A GI tag came in 2018.
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Some allege that mangoes from Karnataka and Gujarat are often sold in the market as Alphonso, a variety that originally comes from the Ratnagiri region of coastal Maharashtra. A GI tag came in 2018. (HT)

It’s a long road for feni to make a noticeable entry to foreign shores but even for products which have earned global accolades, the future appears murky. For instance, Alphonso or hapus mangoes grown in Ratnagiri region of coastal Maharashtra, which received a GI tag in 2018, is prized for its sweetness, distinctive aroma and a pulpy fiber-free mouthfeel.

Because its highly sought after, traders often push farmers to go for early plucking in March and April when supplies are low. The mangoes are then artificially ripened with chemicals which affects quality and taste, says Nowshirwan Mistry, an orchard owner from Dapoli.

“The premium is mostly cornered by traders and exporters. Many growers in my area have sold their lands which have turned into resorts," Mistry adds.

According to Ajit Gogate, chairperson of the Devgad Mango Growers’ Association, one of the agencies which applied for the GI tag and is a registered proprietor, produce from Karnataka and Gujarat are often sold in the market as Alphonso. There is no mechanism yet—like a tamper proof label or a QR code—to assure consumers that the produce is from Ratnagiri.

In India, most registered proprietors (of GI products) have not met their responsibility of getting stakeholders to become authorized users (who can use the GI name and logo on products), and set up a meaningful inspection system and organized marketing channels, says Prabuddha Ganguli, an intellectual property expert and CEO of Mumbai-based Vision-IPR. Registered proprietor is the association or producer that applied for a GI tag.

Ganguli adds that the government has taken steps to promote GI products by organizing national events and exhibitions. But India still lacks an effective system to ensure quality standards and prevent wrongful use.

Lessons from Mr. Valdez

Indian states have at times fought pitched battles to get their products included in the GI registry. Some years back, Odisha and West Bengal fought over rosogolla.
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Indian states have at times fought pitched battles to get their products included in the GI registry. Some years back, Odisha and West Bengal fought over rosogolla. (HT)

Indian states have at times fought pitched battles to get their products included in the GI registry. This include attempts by Madhya Pradesh to be recognized as a grower of basmati rice which is fiercely contested by states like Punjab as well as rice millers and exporters from north India.

Some years back, Odisha and West Bengal fought a pitched battle over rosogolla, a cottage cheese-based dessert immensely popular in eastern India. The controversy ended in a draw, with both states getting their own GI tags. While every GI registration is cheered by states, they seem to be less eager to allocate resources for market expansion and brand building.

Since GI products are immersed in age-old culture and customs, a concerted marketing effort is required to acquire new consumers beyond traditional users, says S. Chandrasekaran, trade policy analyst and author of the book Basmati Rice: Natural History and Geographical Indication.

“To create a market, build skill, preserve authenticity and infuse technology and finance, the government can set up an institutional equivalent of khadi (an umbrella brand for rural artisans) for GI products," Chandrasekaran adds.

India could also look at how coffee growers of Columbia marketed their produce by creating a fictional farmer, Juan Valdez, as its mascot and brand name. Since 1959, the moustached Valdez, perched atop a donkey has been promoting single-origin Columbian coffee, coaxing consumers across the world in a charming Spanish accent. Columbia is now a leading exporter of premium coffee with annual shipments valued at close to $4 billion in 2022.

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