Geographical indications: Boosting exports, driving prosperity

India's geographical indications
India's geographical indications are transforming the country's exports, preserving cultural heritage, and unlocking economic growth.

Geographical indications key to prosperity: Exports play a crucial role in a country’s economic growth. The Union government has implemented several initiatives to boost exports, including favourable policies, manufacturing incentives, streamlined export procedures, and negotiations for services exports in multilateral forums.

The current global market faces significant challenges such as high volatility, rising inflation, an energy crisis, the Russia-Ukraine war, and financial instability, exemplified by the collapse of Silicon Valley Bank (SVB). These factors have created a climate of uncertainty in international export markets.

To address this, the government has recently introduced new measures to enhance exports by identifying underutilized products. These products have untapped potential due to the lack of quality assurance and reliability in rapidly changing international markets. Geographical indications (GIs) provide the necessary guarantee of quality and authenticity for such products.

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Geographical indications boost prosperity

GIs, which protect the originality of products and combat intellectual property violations, have significant export potential, particularly for agricultural goods, handicrafts, and textiles. The government’s emphasis on certification for high-quality products in these sectors is a positive step.

However, there is an ongoing debate surrounding the unequal treatment of developing countries, preventing them from capitalizing on their full export potential. GIs are a form of industrial property that identifies goods originating from specific geographical locations, where their quality, reputation, or other characteristics are tied to their origin.

Like trademarks, GIs address the information gap between buyers and sellers in the market, enabling producers to differentiate their products, build reputation, and command premium prices. For example, champagne is closely associated with the region of France and its reputation for quality and authenticity. This product not only contributes significantly to the country’s exports but also promotes tourism and cultural heritage.

India boasts numerous examples of GIs, including Darjeeling Tea, Kanjeevaram silk sarees, Pochampali Ikat, and Pashmina Shawls, which have the potential to drive exports and gain popularity. It is essential to prioritize protection and equal treatment for developing countries like India, as it would bolster foreign exchange earnings and safeguard the exclusivity, heritage, and traditional skills associated with these products.

The issue gained momentum with the recognition of GIs under the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS). This recognition increased the marketability of GI products and highlighted their potential in international trade. It is worth noting that GIs already held commercial significance even before this recognition. Nonetheless, the revenue potential of GIs necessitated cross-border protection, which led to their inclusion in the TRIPS Agreement.

Article 22 of the TRIPS Agreement provides a general level of cross-border protection for GIs in the course of trade, extending this provision to developing countries like India. However, developed countries enjoy a special provision under Article 23 for the protection of GIs related to wines and spirits. This provision appears to be cantered on developed countries, primarily driven by the demand for protection from European countries with a long-standing tradition in wine and spirits production.

Developing countries, including India, have raised concerns about this unequal treatment during the ongoing Doha Round and recent meetings at the World Trade Organization (WTO). They advocate for an equal level of protection for all GIs, like that provided under Article 23 for wines and spirits.

India has registered many handicraft, food, and agricultural products as GIs. As of May 2023, around 436 Indian products have been recognized as GIs, with additional foreign products also registered. The potential for GIs in India is immense.

It is important to note that the benefits of GI registration are fully realized when these products are effectively marketed and protected against illegal copying. Effective marketing and protection involve quality assurance, brand creation, post-sale consumer feedback and support, and legal action against unauthorized copies. Registration is merely the initial step in creating a market for GIs. Additionally, domestic protection holds significance before international protection becomes relevant. However, for internationally recognized products like Darjeeling Tea, which have a large export market, international protection is crucial.

GI certification safeguards against the misuse of a product’s name by third parties that do not meet the applicable standards. For example, in regions where the “Darjeeling GI” is protected, only tea producers who adhere to the defined standards can use the term “Darjeeling.” Geographical indications primarily apply to agricultural products, foodstuffs, alcoholic beverages, handicrafts, and industrial products.

There is a direct link between India’s cultural diversity, encompassing its various peoples, traditions, and flavours, and the legal protection provided by GIs for products stemming from cultural activities. This link extends to local communities in towns and villages, which possess traditional knowledge of crafting these products. Often, these products are integral to their traditional cultural expressions.

Thus, legal protection for GIs also safeguards traditional knowledge and cultural expressions, ensuring the preservation of livelihoods and generating employment opportunities. Given the premium prices that many GIs command, the protection of GIs also serves to preserve traditional skills and explore niche markets by highlighting unique characteristics.

Considering that many GI products, such as textiles, handicrafts, and tea, are predominantly exported to EU countries, it is worthwhile to negotiate equal treatment for Indian GI products. After all, the EU remains one of India’s largest trading partners. GIs have the potential to be the engine for India’s economic growth. Therefore, Indian policymakers should give due attention to this aspect and negotiate rigorously to secure the rightful recognition of Indian GI products.

The growth of GIs and the legal treatment they receive have become essential topics in policy discussions on economic and social development, both nationally and internationally. A GI tag brings pride to manufacturers and consumers alike, serving as a symbol of excellence and guaranteeing uniqueness and the protection of rights for all parties involved in production. GIs have brought significant benefits to artisans and craftsmen, ensuring the quality and reliability of their creations. France was the first country to enact a comprehensive policy for GI protection, influencing others to develop domestic and international laws for GI registration and protection.

(The Author is former senior faculty Indian Institute of Foreign Trade, New Delhi.)