20080510

The Branding Of Region

GI Status

Indian farm products queue up for a unique mark that lends them an internationally recognised status, reports KA SHAJI in Kochi

IT IS THE original black gold — long before oil was discovered under the desert sands, it was the lure of this spice that had launched a thousand ships. Columbus reached the West Indies, but it was the Malabar coast that was his real destination. The treasure he was seeking to trade in — pepper. The seafarer who did reach the pepper coast, Vasco da Gama, wanted his men to take back saplings. King Zamorin of Calicut (now Kozhikode) was unfazed. “They can’t take along our monsoon,” he is supposed to have famously said.

How right he was. Without the unique south-west monsoon, there can be no Malabar pepper for it is the monsoon rains that cause pollination in local pepper vines. Centuries after Vasco da Gama, the distinctive nature of Malabar Grade 1 and Thalassery (formerly Tellicherry) pepper has been recognised and they’ve bagged the prestigious Geographical Indication (GI) status. This puts Malabar pepper in a special niche, like Champagne, Tequila or Roquefort — or Basmati, Pashmina and Darjeeling tea, for that matter.

Designed to conform to World Trade Organisation (WTO) norms, GIs identify the origin, quality and reputation of a product. “This is a rare recognition and it gives us legal protection against unauthorised claims,” says S. Kannan, director, Spice Board.

The GI tag is also a guarantee of quality and it allows growers to establish their produce as a brand that commands premium prices. India’s GI laws have been effective since 2003, but it’s only now that their impact is being felt, with more and more Indian products winning international recognition. Producers are taking advantage of the labelling, setting high standards, and commanding a higher price. India produces 50,000 tonnes of pepper annually and exports 32,000 tonnes, which makes it the second largest exporter of the spice (next to Vietnam). “It’s a welcome relief,’’ says AC Varkey, chairman of Malabar-based Farmers’ Relief Forum.

Another product that received the GI mark is Alleppey (now Alappuzha) green cardamom. Again, growers will benefit as the majority of the country’s nearly 9,000 tonnes of cardamom production is of this variety. “The idea is to provide legal protection to Indian Geographical Indications and to boost exports,” says a GI official.

The GI boom has touched the paddy sector as well: ‘Palakkadan matta’ rice and two varieties of the medicinal ‘Navara’ rice (black glumed and golden yellow glumed), have been registered. Palakkadan matta is described as a bold red rice with a unique taste that comes from the crop’s geographical location and peculiar weather, whereby the action of the east wind is crucial to the flavour of the rice.

Other products are waiting their turn: Wayanad district, which produces about 71 percent of Kerala’s coffee and stands second only to Coorg, in Karnataka, on the national coffee production graph, has also applied for GI status. Better known as Monsoon Malabar Coffee, its USP is a unique processing system that owes its flavour to serendipity.

In the Nilgiri hills, it is the cup that cheers that’s looking forward to GI status. Aromatic Nilgiri Tea has several attributes of flavour that have prompted the Tea Board to file for GI status. The orthodox variety of tea being produced here comes to around 10 million kilos per year, and about 70 percent of this variety is exported. “The certification will provide solace to small and medium cultivators as well,’’ hopes KV Poulose, one such cultivator in Gudalur.

While acquiring GI status is certainly a huge advantage, getting it is no mean task. “First, one needs to ensure that the products stay pure and that there is no adulteration. At the next stage, othercountries that import these commodities and related products must sign a legal mandate,’’ said Spice Board chairman V J Kurian. Also, getting the GI mark is not the ultimate goal. Farmers’ leaders point out that , often, GI status is just the beginning. “The government must ensure an increase in crop production, without compromising on quality. The target must be to help the lower strata of farmers. Finding better markets using GI status would help bail out cash crop farmers who have been distressed lately due to severe fall in prices,” says M. Surendran, who leads Infam, a farmers’ organisation.

The fiscal 2007-08 has seen 31 GI registrations — the highest number ever. And as uniquely Indian products start to standardise their cultivation and production values, these numbers are set to increase. In business-speak, that’s called the ideal brand protect.

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