National handloom week: A time to fix the GI magic wand

The GI Act enacted in 2003 was believed to revive the dying handloom industry in India. However, 19 years later, the benefits failed to trickle down to the rural workers. What can we do to make the magic wand work?

National Handloom Week
An Indian weaver weaves a silk saree at a small scale handloom factory on the outskirts of Hyderabad. (Photo: AP)

India is celebrating the handloom week from April 7 to 14, 2022. While the handloom industry in India is thousands of years old, the industry is slowly dying. Some of the causes attributed to such a decline are the emergence of power looms and the benefits of the industry not trickling down to the grassroots.

In 2003, when India enacted the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act, 1999 (‘the GI Act’), there was a belief that registering handloom product names under the same could magically revive the dying industry. Successful European GIs were often cited as examples where registration magically transformed communities. Many Indian handloom products, among others, were thus registered, only to realise later that the GI Act held no magic wand. Despite registration and the ensuing media publicity, the markets are flooded with fakes, product credibility has been elusive, artisans are clueless about their GI ownership, their pockets remain light, and their communities are still underdeveloped. So, what is missing in the GI Act? The handloom week is an opportune moment to examine this.

Missing provisions on quality control

Sustainable quality control lies at the heart of the success of any GI. Consistent high quality is an attractive force for a customer to repeatedly choose the same product. This can be achieved only through suitable measures implemented throughout the supply chain.

Unlike trademark branding, where it is simpler to get consistent quality for the branded products through licensing arrangements, it is complicated for GI branding. For example, textile brands like BIBA or FabIndia would be typically applied by the respective proprietors or their licensees after a quality check is done on each piece. Whereas, for a Kota Doria or a Chanderi, the GI tag is attached by the artisans, who are numbered in hundreds or thousands. They could be operating from their homes as opposed to factories. These artisans are the real owners of the GI and need no licensing. However, each artisan must ensure quality control by adhering to the specifications entered in the GI Register. Without stringent inspection mechanisms or quality control measures mandated in the legal framework coupled with sanctions for violation of the specifications, diligence and self-discipline of the artisan tends to wear off after a while. That is when inconsistency in quality creeps in and substandard products start to appear in the market.

In an ideal situation, there must be several layers of inspection structures through the supply chain, starting with a check on the quality of the raw materials before production begins. For example, the corresponding European law (ECR 1151/ 2012 titled, ‘quality schemes for agricultural products and foodstuffs’), under a much older and well-established GI legal system, has internal and external layers of such inspection and quality control measures. Even the title of the European law reflects the emphasis on quality. In contrast, the GI Act does not even feature the words ‘quality control’ - the biggest gaping hole. It merely stipulates listing of the standards without stating who and how it should be maintained. This void in the Indian GI law is a big challenge for the handloom industry, which has thousands of artisans making the same product. It is rendered a magicless wand by such missing provisions on quality control.

Why most GIs flounder post registration?

An association of producers can be a GI Applicant under Section 11 of the GI Act. Barring a line that the applicant must protect the interests of the producers, the section does not have any provisions to verify and ensure the financial and infrastructural eligibility of the applicant to administer the GI or impose sanctions against breach of quality control standards. As a result, most GIs start to flounder right after registration because they are unable to address the sudden surge of fakes in the markets.

Consistent quality of GI tagged products will continue to remain an illusion unless the artisans are guided at the inception itself. The groundwork for this must begin with pre-registration. More so in the handloom sector where artisans are often semi-literate or illiterate. They must be united and oriented to the purpose of the GI registration. The potential of their art and the importance of quality control must be explained to them from the perspective of the consumer and the market. They must be warned of immediate and long-term consequences of not adhering to the same by creating awareness about what would be protected upon registration, how it would increase their market access and premium in the product and the consequent economic and social transformation of them and their corresponding communities. There must be a legal mandate to adhere to these pre-registration steps before making an application. For continued and sustained protection against fakes and for promotional activities, stable financial structures must be established pre-registration through participative and consensual processes to avoid conflicts later.

All this is not envisaged under the statute or the enabling rules.

The headache of ‘registered users’

Yet another redundant, flawed, and illogical provision of the GI Act is the provision for ‘registered users’. This is a legislative error that crept into the statute when legislators ‘trademark-fied’ the GI Act and introduced the similar concept of ‘permitted users’ or licensees from trademark law to GI law. While trademarks are owned by their proprietors, GIs are owned by their producers. The producers existed even before the applicant body, a subsequent creation, was established to facilitate the administration of the collective rights of the producers (artisans here). Hence, it is ironic that the statute seeks to make producers ‘authorised users’. Also, imagine the impracticality of asking thousands of artisans to register themselves as the registered users of a protected handloom product name!

The untapped potential of GIs for the handloom industry

GIs have the potential to positively transform economies and communities. When the GI Act was notified into effect in 2003, GIs were in the background as one more IP right. In 2022, GIs have come to the forefront. They are used as tools to achieve sustainable development goals. A recent study by FAO (Food and Agriculture Organisation) and oriGIn (Organisation for an International Network of Geographical Indications) found evidence that engaging GI producers in a sustainability strategy can maximize their contribution to sustainable development. While GIs may exist in a world that is quantitatively dominated by trademarks, qualitatively viewed, GIs are as powerful and prevalent a branding tool as trademarks are. Unlike trademarks that enrich corporations and private individuals, GIs have the power and potential to positively transform communities if well-protected and managed. For that, a robust statute is needed.

While a lot of GIs are getting registered in India today, proliferation of registration is of no use if the law itself is a teethless tiger. Without addressing the gaps in the current statute, GI registrations for handloom products or any other products are futile. Could the handloom week celebrations be made meaningful by resolving to amend the GI Act before next year’s celebration so that the current gaps may be suitably filled?

(The author is partner and Chair of trademark practice at K&S Partners, an IP boutique)