Discontent brews over Darjeeling tea label

Last Updated: Tue, Jan 11, 2011 20:11 hrs

The Tea Board’s control of the GI tag makes small farmers unhappy

Darjeeling tea may have been the first Indian product to receive Geographical Indication (GI) status in 2004. But seven years on, it is not turning out to be everyone’s cup of tea: activists and experts are now questioning that status and its implications.

A GI tag recognises goods originating from a certain area that have qualities, reputation or characteristics clearly linked to its geographical origin. Darjeeling tea is grown at a height of 2,500 metres in hilly areas of the eponymous district in West Bengal and joined the league of other GI-protected products as Champagne, Tequila, Cognac and Roquefort cheese. The tea has a huge international market (around 80 per cent of the 10 million kg of tea produced annually is exported).

Since the distinct flavour of Darjeeling tea is directly attributed to its geographic location, the government-promoted Tea Board of India took the initiative to file an application for its registration under the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act, 1999.

The Tea Board registered the word "Darjeeling" and the Darjeeling tea logo as GIs. However, it has restricted their use by according the tag only to tea grown and processed in the 87 tea gardens that have entered into a licensed agreement with it. This exclusivity could be seen as a measure to check counterfeits (40 million kg of "Darjeeling tea" is sold, which is four times the actual annual produce).

However, many small farmers in the region think the narrow definition runs contrary to the spirit of GI, which unlike a trademark, belongs to all the producers of the specific good and not to a particular enterprise or organisation. The GI for Darjeeling tea, many feel, overlooks the overall prosperity of the region by leaving out almost 30 per cent of small farmers.

At present, small farmers outside the 87 tea estates need to sell their produce to any of the listed tea plantations, which then sell it in the open market as Darjeeling tea. Roshan Rai, a member of the NGO Darjeeling Ladenla Road Prerna – that helped establish the district’s first small farmers’ tea cooperative Sanjukta Vikas Sanstha – thinks making GI all-inclusive and opening the market for small farmers could have a tremendous economic impact and also resolve the region’s long-standing geopolitical issues for a separate "Gorkhaland" state.

"The market has enough space for both big plantations and small farmers. Of course, there should be strict standards set ensuring the quality and characteristics that are essential to Darjeeling tea, but who’s to say small farmers can’t meet them?," he says.

Vinay Jain, a Delhi High Court advocate, agrees. He points out a basic flaw in the registration process — since the GI Act’s sole purpose is to protect producers and their rights at the grassroots level, the applicant filing for the GI status must represent the entire grower and farmer community of Darjeeling Tea. "Tea Board of India was set up by the Union Ministry of Trade and Commerce under the Tea Act in 1953 to regulate tea exports. It does not fully represent all the producers, specifically small farmers, linked with the production of Darjeeling tea and nor is it a body specifically constituted to protect the interest of growers," he says.

He emphasises that mere registration of GI (the product) is not enough; the Act says it is also important to register and list the authorised users, which gives individual producers the legal right to sell their products under GI. In the case of Darjeeling tea, the Tea Board mentions no authorised users. Jain has filed an application for the removal of the GI tag to the GI Registry at the Intellectual Property Office in Chennai and is waiting for a reply. G L Verma, deputy registrar of trade marks & GI, says the application is being reviewed and that proper legal course will be taken to settle the matter. Roshini Sen, deputy chairman, Tea Board of India, however, says she is not aware of any application filed for the removal of GI tag.

Nevertheless, there are those who believe removal of GI tag from Darjeeling tea will be of little use. T C James, director of National Intellectual Property Organisation, a non-profit think-tank working on intellectual property awareness says everyone loses if Darjeeling tea loses its GI status, given that the legal protection it provides helps boost exports. He says that Tea Board must be given credit for taking the initiative to register it as the first Indian good under the GI Act. "If, however, there are those who believe it was wrongly registered there is a legal mechanism to address their grievances," he says.

A similar application seeking the removal of the GI tag of the Tirupati Laddu has been filed by Praveen Raj, a scientist at the National Institute for Interdisciplinary Science and Technology, Thiruvananthapuram. He believes the GI status in this instance encourages commercialisation of religion.



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