The many nuances of a GI tag

This form of identification aids in authenticity, protection and tourism


The month of March heralded the celebration of the largest number of products in India being awarded the prestigious Geographical Indications (GI) tag. With an overwhelming 60 products being given the award, we have come a long way from Darjeeling tea being the first to be bestowed this honour two decades ago.

Currently, 635 products in India have a GI tag and many more are aspiring for the same. These geographic markers remind me of studying topography maps in geography class back in school. Shading, outlining and marking parts of India best known for its natural minerals and raw materials, it certainly helped me identify a product or resource with a place. GI tags seem to have a similar aim.

GI tagging is recognised internationally under the Paris Convention and is a form of Intellectual Property rights. A way of branding, it helps in identifying a product and giving it a unique identity. This form of identification also aids in legal protection, aiming to regulate the standards and quality of a product.

But can the tag preserve cultural products from extension and replication?

We live in an era where it is ridiculously easy to fake and replicate. Be it the art we consume, the music we listen to or the movies we watch. All around us, ideas are being plagiarised and cheaper, lower quality, knock-off products are being sold. There is a continuing debate on the importance of copyright. At a critical time such as this, GI tags are gaining greater importance and recognition. Instilling in the consumer the trust of a product and allowing the authentic seller to gain their due credit.

The place of origin further serves as the trademark of that product on a global and international level. This further enhances the market value of the product. GI tags were originally popular and a common practice with agricultural and consumption-based items. Nagpur’s oranges got a new market with their geographic identity as did

Darjeeling’s tea. Just as people and community make a place, so does the art, culture, cuisine, dance and music blend in to create an identity of every village on the global map.

A large number of artisan-made products are now striving to be part of the GI list, coveting this badge of honour. Would Mysore’s rich silk, which is a traditional, staple favourite of the ladies, an integral part of every bridal trousseau and also a favourite with tourists, have the same brand identity were it not for the GI tag?

Similarly, do Kangra’s delicate miniature paintings, on which the late art historian B.N. Goswamy has done such deep research, owe their current popularity and distinct geographic identity to the tag?

It is now universally known that the Taj Mahal was carved out of pristine marble from the Makrana mines in Rajasthan. The weavers who arduously create Patan’s Patola would still be relatively anonymous were it not for the tag that catapulted them to different heights.

To a self-aware society where documentation, archiving and provenance is key, the GI tag does help with preservation, protection and promotion of cultural heritage. The tag gives a product a cultural identity, promoting quality control and artisan empowerment.

For example, the craft cluster creating musical instruments in Miraj applied for the GI tag when they realised that many dubious characters were getting away with creating instruments under the Miraj name. With no authenticity or quality checks, the growth of a parallel, fake market would potentially threaten their age old craft and practice.

The region is already famous for sitar and tanpura making and did not particularly need the tag to build a brand or narrative. However, the artisans of the region applied for the tag with the hope that this would get rid of inauthentic products as well as cheaper replicas, which were reducing their authenticity and value. Armed with the tag, the artisans aim to promote the traditional practice as well as attract tourists to witness the building and creation of an instrument right from inception to the final product.

While a GI tag can have several benefits, how does one go about enforcing the legal rights or intellectual property rights of these products? The Kolhapuri chappal for example, handcrafted leather slippers, tracing their GI to eight regions between Maharashtra and Karnataka. The slippers faced a rather unforeseen fate when the tag received became a double-edged sword.

To begin with, the chappals (slippers) are originally made from leather in a state where cattle slaughter has been banned. In a time where animal cruelty concerns are being raised, there is a cornucopia of material mimicking the look and feel of genuine leather. The artisans of a mere eight districts are not equipped to follow through with the checks and balances, control the fake market and also purchase affordable, original leather from tanneries.

I do wonder if the GI tag in instances such as this would be a bane or a boon?

The process of applying for a tag is also tedious and complicated (like most paperwork in India). Simultaneously, it requires an extensive amount of research on the product. There are times when disputes arise and questions are raised over the place of origin of a product.

Odisha was rather disappointed when West Bengal won the GI tag for the famous sweet dish ‘Roshogulla’. After two long years, several arguments, cultural debates and bitter battles, Odisha too was granted a tag for their version of this delicacy.

While this delectable and joyous end to the story kept both states happy, it also highlighted that there are many complications and several indicators and markers, which give a product its distinctiveness.

In a country as culturally diverse as India, how many products does one GI tag? And how successfully will the tagging system be followed through, as the number of tagged products increase?