With Prime Minister Narendra Modi inaugurating the first National Handloom Day in Chennai on August 7, implementing innovative solutions to the plethora of problems confronting weavers should attract the attention of policy-makers. While celebrating a day for handlooms is laudable, the key question is: What needs to be done to reverse the declining employment and dipping incomes of weavers in this sector? The government should seriously look at leveraging an oft-ignored intellectual property right—geographical indication—for unlocking the commercial potential inherent in many handloom products and meeting the objectives sought to be achieved by the National Handloom Day.
Geographical indication (GI) is an IPR which identifies a product as originating in a certain region where the quality, reputation or other characteristics of the same are essentially attributable to its geographical origin. India enacted the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act in 1999. Of the 236 products registered as GIs till April 2015, almost 50 can be identified as handloom products, including Kashmir Pashmina and Kani shawl (J&K), Kullu shawl (HP), Kota Doria (Rajasthan), Tangalia and Kachchh shawls (Gujarat), Paithani saree (Maharashtra), Ilkal saree (Karnataka), Balaramapuram saree and fine cotton fabrics (Kerala), Kancheepuram Silk (TN), Gadwal saree (Telangana), Pochampally Ikat and Uppada Jamdani saree (AP), Gopalpur Tussar fabric and Bomkai saree (Odisha), Baluchari saree (West Bengal), Shaphee Lanphee (Manipur), Banarasi brocade and saree (UP), Chanderi fabric (MP) and Kosa silk (Chhattisgarh). This represents a rich diversity of handloom tradition across India.
Legal protection through a GI tag prevents similar products from free-riding on the reputation of the GI product. To elaborate, as Banarasi saree has the GI tag, a similar product made outside the region specified in the GI application cannot be sold under the name ‘Banarasi saree’. Further, since the GI was obtained for Banarasi saree made on handlooms, even similar sarees made in Varanasi, but on powerlooms, cannot be called Banarasi saree. Any retailer who sells a saree under the name ‘Banarasi’ needs to ensure that it is produced on handlooms in Varanasi and adjoining places in the designated geographical region. If not, he is liable to pay fine and even face imprisonment up to three years. Clearly, the law can be effective in preventing the illegal use of the GI tag.
Apart from legal protection, GI conveys an assurance of quality and distinctiveness, for which consumers and traders are generally willing to pay premium prices for the product. GI labelling can allow producers to differentiate themselves in the market and communicate such differences to consumers. This would help successfully face competition from powerloom products, which benefit from high volume, low prices and mass marketing.
To unlock the commercial potential of GIs, producers have to undertake marketing initiatives around the GI tag. Most artisans lack the wherewithal to undertake post-registration activities for brand-building of registered GIs. The government has to step in with marketing initiatives.
While some state governments have taken post-registration initiatives, we have not seen any such scheme from the Centre. A comprehensive initiative by the Centre could raise awareness about GI among consumers, retailers and fashion designers; facilitate enforcement of legal rights under the GI Act; ensure that only those products which meet the specifications mentioned in the respective GI application benefit from the GI tag; and create effective marketing channels for GI products.
Measures aimed at raising consumer awareness about GI products can include hoardings at prominent places, highlighting GIs linked with the region. Announcements could be made in trains and flights regarding GIs of the region through which the train or aircraft is passing. Other initiatives include creating a website having detailed information on GI products. The Chanderi and Pashmina websites, for example, are informative.
At the core of GI protection is preventing ineligible producers from using the GI tag. Lessons could be learnt from Kota Doria initiatives. The producers have developed a technique for weaving the Kota Doria logo in the product.
This prevents similar products by powerlooms from being passed off as hand-woven Kota Doria. It can be replicated for other handloom products.
Each GI product is expected to have an inspection mechanism for ensuring adherence to the product quality and characteristics as specified in the GI application. However, the inspection mechanism is either non-existent or not functional for most GI products. The government needs to change this.
We also need to keep product design aligned with changing consumer preferences. Again, the example of Kota Doria is relevant. Rajasthan government engaged a reputed fashion designer to analyse evolving consumer tastes and suggest changes to Kota Doria design. It also organised fashion shows centred around the product. These initiatives enhanced sales and incomes of weavers more than doubled within 4-5 years of GI registration of Kota Doria. The central government could replicate such initiatives for other handloom GIs.
The Centre should position handloom GIs as exclusive and niche. It can leverage existing distribution channels, for example the modernised Khadi outlets, and create new networks for effective marketing of handloom GIs. These products could be given more prominence in international textile exhibitions and trade fares. On the export front, exclusive outlets could be established in key markets such as New York and London for retailing handloom GIs.
The GI tag can be used effectively as a marketing tool for enhancing sales and raising incomes of weavers. By protecting handloom GI products, we would also keep alive the rich cultural heritage and traditions associated with these products. If the concerned ministries and department take a few steps together for commercially leveraging the GI tag of handloom products, it would be a matter of time before retailers and consumers beat a path to the weavers.
That would impart considerable substance to the celebrations of the National Handloom Day next year.
The author is head, Centre for WTO Studies, Indian Institute of Foreign Trade. Views are personal