Bonanza from Geographical Rights

I wrote last week about how the World Trade Organisation’s rules have helped, Indian basmati rice exports to increase by hundreds of millions of dollars, and gain protection for it from foreign imitation. This protection is based not on the biological composition of basmati but the fact that it comes from a particular geographical region. The key issue here is not patent rights but geographical indication rights under WTO.

Basmati rice is by no means the only Indian item that can take advantage of geographical protection. The list includes:

  • Alfonso mangos. These come from the Konkan coast. Many people in other parts of India, and other countries for that matter, will try and grow the same biological varieties as Konkan does, and claim these are also Alfonsos. We must stop this on geographical grounds.
  • Ponni and Ambermore rice. These are just two of many top-quality aromatic rices that need geographical protection too. Indeed, we need to overhaul our archaic rules which lump all non-basmati varieties together into a single category. We need to specify both biological and geographical specifications for different sorts of rice. All aromatic rice (there are almost 2,000 such varieties) should be taken out of the procurement levy system altogether (as is the ‘ case with basmati). It makes no sense to include such premium rice in a public distribution system meant for the poor. But in exports the proportion of broken rice has to be reduced to 5 per cent, and the separated brokens can be handed Over as levy rice to the PDS.
  • Darjeeling tea. Today, for want of geographical protection, even bulk teas from Sri Lanka and Kenya are labelled ‘Darjeeling.’ Retail tea packets are based on blended tea, and many supposed ‘Darjeeling blends’ have no more than one per cent of tea from Darjeeling. We need to promote and protect Assam tea as well as Darjeeling tea.
  • Nashik pink onions are an underrated speciality. Western countries grow white onions with a much milder taste.
  • Kanji, the delicious juice of black carrots from northern India and Pakistan.
  • Sarson ka saag, an ancient Punjabi speciality.
  • Indian pepper has a rich taste that makes it superior to rivals like Indonesian pepper. Again, Indian cardamom has a richer taste than rival cardamom from other countries. We need to promote these items as geographical specialities, just as Colombia has promoted Colombian coffee as a premium product.

This is only a short illustrative list, and a sustained effort will reveal many more items. India is blessed with a diversity of agroclimatic conditions that yields several regional specialities. We have failed to protect and promote such specialities in the past. Now the WTQ makes that imperative.

Some products in the above list are not exported today. Yet the export potential of all such geographical specialities is enormous for four reasons.

First, as the world grows richer, consumers are becoming more and more discriminating, and are increasingly distinguishing between ordinary foods and gourmet ones. Consumers in many well-off countries pay a high premium for gourmet foods, more so if these are grown organically. Higher global incomes will continue to spur the demand for geographical specialities.

Second, consumers in many rich countries are now opting for non-traditional foods which they never ate before, and this means there is scope for exporting new items like sarson ka saag. A classic case is point is kiwi fruit, the green fruit which New Zealand developed and succeeding in making a standard item in supermarkets the world over. But today several other countries have started growing kiwi “fruit and Undercutting New Zealand. That underlines the need for aggressively protecting geographical rights while promoting specialities.

Third, the Indian community overseas is estimated at 20 million today. This is more than the population of entire countries like Uganda (19 million); Ghana (17 nillion), Sri Lanka (18 million), and Australia (18 million). Indeed, it is more than the combined population of Ireland, Norway, Den-nark and Switzerland. So Indians overseas constitute a major market or speciality foods. Note that Indians abroad often belong, to the high-income class and willingly pay premium prices.

Fourth, Indian cuisine is becoming popular with people of all nationalities the world over. So the demand for Indian foods is getting globalised, greatly expanding the size of the market. In Britain, according to one report, more restaurants now serve Indian food ban British. Their Indian restaurants no longer cater to just the ethnic niche, they now cater to the whole range of consumers include he gourmet class.

So, the scope for capitalising on geographical rights is immense. But we need straightaway to enact leg-station providing for geographical protection within India itself, It is silly to criticise cunning Americans or trying to pass off spurious stuff is basmati, but ignore the many Indian traders doing the same geographical indications protect lot just producers but consumers too, by guaranteeing the latter genuine goods. We must stop internal violation of geographical rights no less than international violation. When protection for champagne vas first enacted in France, it aimed at stopping imitation by other French wine-growing districts, as well foreigners.

We have ignored consumer protection in India, so naturally we have not bothered about protecting geographical rights either. But several other countries (including the USA) have such legislation in place. So, ironically, the Basmati development fund can take legal action against American imitators of basmati under American law, but not Indian ones. This is disgraceful.

Once we fully take into account it the great potential value of geographical indications for India, the old debate on intellectual property in this country looks highly flawed and incomplete. Many Indian leftists claim that intellectual property rights are skewed In favour of rich countries, which have more scientists and inventions. This approach ignores the value of geographical indications. Third world countries cover an area several times as large as developed ones, and have greater agricultural diversity. Third World countries have, potentially if not immediately, more to gain from geographical rights than developed countries.

Moreover, patent rights are available for only 20 years, after which they become global property. But geographical rights are available for eternity. In this respect, intellectual property rights under WTO are actually skewed in favour of the Third World. Eco-jingoists, please note.

What do you think?