From Haleem to laddus and rasgullas, the baked buttery bites from Ooty are new entrants to GI related scrutiny in India. The Ooty Varkey Producers Welfare Association has filed an application for registration of a Geographical Indication for the ‘Ooty Varkey’ biscuits (here). As claimed, the Ooty Varkey is a biscuit unique to the Nilgiri District and its manufacture is traced to the British era.
The Association claims that these biscuits deserve GI protection because they are unique to the region due to the following reasons: “(i) It is made by hand, only the mixing of flour, sugar, salt and water is done by machines. Other processes is made by hand. (ii) the water drained from the hills of the Nilgiri district is used in the preparation of the Varkey makes it delicious, (iii) its climatic conditions. (iv) Varkey is baked on firewood ovens on a moderate heat, (v) originates only in the district of Nilgiris (vi) Varkey cannot be produced in other places where the temperature is above 25 degree Celsius”
On the basis of these (mouth watering) claims, various questions require attention and the registry should not be tempted to bite into these tasty delights in haste. Fundamental questions such as: do these biscuits even qualify for a GI tag, does the association filing this application represent all the producers/manufacturers of these goods and whether standards can be maintained with respect to goods that are so widely made/produced (even in the given geographical region), require thorough examination.
The definition of a GI as per the GI Act is “an indication which identifies such goods as agricultural goods, natural goods or manufactured goods as originating, or manufactured in the territory of a country, or a region or locality in that territory, where a given quality, reputation or other characteristic of such goods is essentially attributable to its geographical origin”. Additionally, in case of manufactured goods, the production or processing should take place within the specific geographical region.
A geographical indication in relation to natural or agricultural goods is easier to assess since there are definite natural factors such as temperature, soil quality, moisture etc which directly impact the quality and characteristics of the product thereby creating an apparent ‘geographical link’. However, with respect to manufactured or processed goods, this link becomes less obvious to define. In such cases, in order to assess this link, the registry must undertake thorough fact based as well as scientific studies into ascertaining the claimed geographical link. In the case of the Ooty Varkey, the application must be scrutinized to assess whether there is a public perception that these biscuits come only from the Nilgiri district. Since one of the main geographical links in relation to this biscuit, as claimed, is that it is made from the waters of the Nilgiris, will a consumer who is given a Varkey made from the waters of Shimla be able to distinguish it from a Varkey made with the waters of the Nilgiris in Ooty? Added to the fact based inquiries, scientific inquiries into temperature requirements/climatic conditions/water components will have to be examined in order to come to a conclusion of whether or not these biscuits have a quality, reputation or characteristic that link them to the Nilgiri district alone.
An equally important determination, before the grant of such a GI, is whether the applicant adduces enough evidence to show that all the producers of Ooty Varkey are desirous of obtaining a GI tag. Unlike most IP legislations where ownership is individual oriented, the GI Act attempts to bring in a ‘collective’ ownership framework wherein all those who are directly engaged in exploiting, creating or making or manufacturing the goods are protected and benefit from GI registration. In order to realise this objective, as pointed out in the IPAB order (here), the vulnerable groups who are the real interested persons cannot be left out. In order to fulfil this objective, the IPAB order suggests that notices of GI registration should be published in local languages so that the target group under the Act is not unaware about an application which may affect their interests.
Lastly, unlike most other GIs that originate from closer knit producer groups, these biscuits can be produced by a wide variety of producers: from household producers to tea shops to bakeries to established companies. This raises questions on the mechanisms of distribution of benefits and maintenance of quality and standards, should a GI tag be given.
(Hat tip to Praveen Raj and many thanks to Prashant Reddy for his inputs)