The readers will undoubtedly aware of the popularity enjoyed by certain products in India that have been granted protection under the special tag of geographical indication (GI). Darjeeling, Assam and Nilgiri teas are prime examples of such GIs that have achieved global popularity by way of export and are extremely valuable sources of foreign exchange earners for India.
For those who are unaware, GI protection is accorded to products made in or originating from a specific region as recognition of its unique qualities attributable to that particular region. Darjeeling tea, Scottish Malt Whiskey etc. can be stated as examples. GI protection thus exudes an assurance of quality and distinctiveness that is essentially attributable to its origin /production in that defined geographical locality. As per Articles 1 (2) and 10 of the Paris Convention for the Protection of Industrial Property, GIs have been recognized as a form of IP protection. Articles 22 to 24 of the TRIPS Agreement also deals with GIs. India, in its capacity as a WTO member, enacted the Geographical Indications of Goods (Registration & Protection) Act, 1999 (operative with effect from 15th September 2003).
Recently, several Indian tea-manufacturers have expressed their grievances over the practice of dilution of these different well-known brands of tea by means of mixing them with other varieties. Needless to say, such dilution, by way of quality compromise, can also lower the brand value attached with the GI under consideration. The Indian manufacturers have alleged that the practice of dilution has become pretty rampant in Russia in the recent times. The Indian Tea Board is in fact fighting several lawsuits at present with regard to GI protection, especially the matter of unauthorized/illegal use of the label ‘Darjeeling Tea’ in several nations including Russia.
According to Mr. Kaushik Basu of the Darjeeling Tea Association, the Russian IP regime does not incorporate any specific GI protection, although Russia is a WTO member and hence requires to be TRIPS-compliant as such. He further informed that the Tea Board, which had already in the past got Darjeeling Tea registered as GI in India and Europe, intends to pursue the matter till the fag end and have even sent specific samples to back up its allegation.
The Indian tea industry has been aiming for some time to replace Iran as one of Russia’s chief tea suppliers in the light of the recent US and EU sanctions imposed on Iran. The exporters in India have also during recent times turned their attention towards exporting value-added and branded tea as well as overseas marketing of their respective brands. Given such a scenario, dilution of the GI is not at all a welcome development.
The allegation was sought to be discussed in the recent BRICS summit as a part of an Indo-Russian bilateral meeting, where India urged Russia to consider according GI protection to those tea varieties under the Russian collective trademark regime, at least until separate legislative protection can be provided to the GIs in Russia. According to media sources, Russia has ensured India that it will give the matter its full consideration, but has also requested further specific details from India pertaining to said allegation. In a related matter, Moscow has also agreed to examine India’s complaints on duty differential between bulk and packaged tea, as well as customs regulations that are major barriers for Indian tea exports to Russia.
One does hope that this promising development will facilitate protection against violation of GI regarding this prime export product of India elsewhere.