The move to foist a GI tag on Mandu’s baobab tree is part of a drive to push up the GI tally which does not benefit local communities
In June last year, there was a ruckus in Dhar district of Madhya Pradesh when the Bhil tribespeople stopped trucks from carting away around a dozen baobab trees from their villages around the historical town of Mandu.
The trees were being taken to a commercial botanical garden being set up about 1,000 km away on the outskirts of Hyderabad.
The Madhya Pradesh forest department had given permission for the translocation of the trees, but the Bhils who had been nurturing the trees for a long time, possibly centuries, were upset and set up a roadblock.
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Police had to intervene to let the trees go through.
The baobab is of African origin and not many are to be found in India; the biggest cluster is in Mandu.
The strangely shaped succulent is known as the tree of life, because it is able to store water from the rains in its vast trunk and produce a nutrient-dense fruit in the dry season when the land turns arid.
The tree has medicinal properties and provides some income for the Bhil community, which sells its fruits and seeds to local traders.
Given their strong attachment to nature, the tribal people were enraged that the forest department had allowed the businessman to take away grown trees instead of buying saplings from the nursery in the area. The Bhils demanded to know why the forest department had not protected the trees.
Instead of admitting that the forest department had failed to do its job, the official response has been unexpected. The authorities say they will help the local community get a Geographical Indication (GI) for baobab trees.
The Dhar horticulture department has set up a committee to identify local farmers who can form an association or society to apply for the GI tag. Will the Bhils have a say in this development, when all they want is to keep their trees safe?
GI is somewhat like a trademark, but one that offers an additional advantage. It certifies the product as originating in a specific territory of a World Trade Organization (WTO) member that endows it with a given quality, reputation or other characteristics that are attributable to its geographic origin.
Essentially, a GI is a collective right that seeks to protect the economic interests of a community of producers from a particular region who have specialised in making or manufacturing a specific product. It bars other producers from using the protected name.
Good examples of how the GI protects and improves the commercial prospects for a product are champagne (from France), tequila (from Mexico) and Roquefort (a well-known blue cheese from France). For India, the GI is vital for its Basmati rice and Darjeeling tea, whose exports fetch it billions of dollars.
But what would a GI do for the Mandu baobab—there are such trees in Uttar Pradesh, Maharashtra and Gujarat also—or for the Bhils? After all the tedious formalities that go into getting a GI registered and the fees that have to be paid to the GI Registry, would the tribal folk be any better off? The horticulture department would be hard put to provide a convincing answer.
And so would the Commerce Ministry’s Department for Promotion of Industry and Internal Trade (DPIIT), which promotes GI with singular zeal and holds regular conferences and contests to popularise the concept.
The focus has been to incite competition among states to garner as many GI tags as possible for a host of products that have a limited mark by promoting regional chauvinism, as in the absurd fight between Odisha and West Bengal over the origin of the rasgulla, a sweetmeat available in every nook and corner of India.
Not only is the process of granting the GI flawed, but what is distressing is the complete failure by the authorities to provide much needed technical and marketing support to local communities to capitalise on their unique advantage. There is no strategy or even a basic plan to help local communities improve their economic prospects. Handing out a GI tag has become an end in itself.
Thus, we have GI tags for a range of products that are better off with a strong brand name. Like agarbattis (incense sticks), jasmine varieties that are sold at traffic lights and temple areas, a wet grinder which could have been made in any stonecutter’s yard, and a host of sweets. The most egregious example of the misuse of GI is God's own laddoo, sold at the Tirupati temple, of which much has been written.
Globally, however, the big test for India will be its ability to get the GI tag from the EU for its export money spinner, the fragrant Basmati rice. Almost 75 per cent of the Basmati produced in the world comes from India, but its claim for the coveted tag is being challenged by its closest competitor Pakistan and, unexpectedly, by another small neighbour, Nepal, which is an insignificant player in the market. Delhi could have obviated this problem by cooperating with Pakistan and presenting a joint front at the EU. Now a third South Asian nation has joined the fray, pointing to a failure of cooperation and diplomatic strategy.
Formidable as these challenges may be, the biggest problem for India is its own policy on Basmati, based on compulsions of internal politics. By allowing a huge number of new cultivars to be designated as Basmati in the past five years, the country has undermined its position as the supplier of top quality rice. This was done under pressure from states that have started to produce the newer varieties of Basmati in recent years, such as Madhya Pradesh. A recent study in the UK by Bangor University, published in late 2022, says some of these strains are sub-standard, devoid of the signature fragrance that makes Basmati the world’s premium rice. It used a system of DNA fingerprinting to establish the purity of the Basmati.
As a result, the UK Rice Association has published a new code of practice that eliminates six varieties, five from India and one from Pakistan, that do not meet the standard from the permitted list. It came into force in January this year. For India, the stakes are too high to afford any slip ups, either on its GI strategy or on quality concerns.
Views expressed are personal