Last week witnessed a battle royale between Ratnagiri and Sindhudurg on which district would lay claim to be the real home of the Hapus (also called the Alphonso) mango. Truce was finally called, and both districts agreed to bury the hatchet, when The Patents Office convinced both of them to agree to jointly apply for the Alphonso GI (geographical indication) tag.
As per the WIPO, a geographical indication (GI) is a sign used on products that have a specific geographical origin and possess qualities or a reputation that are due to that origin.
So, if the patent application now goes through, authentic Hapus mangoes will be GI-tagged in the entire Konkan belt, right from Palghar in the north to Sindhudurg in southern Maharashtra. The Konkan region has almost 110,000 hectareage under Alphonso orchards and produces mangoes worth Rs 30 billion annually, over 50 per cent of which are exported. Of course, to differentiate themselves, and maintain exclusivity, growers in different sub-regions can still pre-fix or suffix the names of their region to the tag – Devgad Hapus, Ratnagiri Hapus, Kokan Hapus...
The most famous example of GI-tagging in the world is of course Champagne, the sparkling wine from that particular district of France. Geographical indications (GIs) have long been used globally as indicators or appellations of origin in food law. They authenticate and symbolise an intellectual property right of a label owned collectively by all producers in a region.
The law surrounding GIs protects producers and their reputations and reassures consumers that a product of the origin stated on the label is authentic.
The GI-tagging for the Alphonso mango will surely protect its exclusivity and distinctiveness, going forward. But there seems to be no apparent and visible effort to go beyond. The missionary zeal with which the GI-appellation of Champagne is protected and promoted makes the bubbly elite and expensive; exactly the type of luxury product which the law of GIs aims to protect. French champagne makers constantly strive for higher and better levels of excellence in the quality of champagne, driven by the belief that if the GI of Champagne were to be dismantled or diluted, the champagne flute would contain an inferior sparkling wine not worthy of the champagne name or description. This devotion to quality control is the deep-rooted foundation for the designation of champagne as an appellation of origin, as opposed to a mere indication of source.
India’s real experience with GI-tagging started in the 1990s with the battle for Basmati rice. The aromatic rice from northern India was being challenged for its name and exclusivity by Pakistan on one side, and by a US brand called Kasmati. It took many years of legal battles and proactive lobbying for India to protect Basmati from being encroached upon, and compromised. But once the patent was duly established and acknowledged, India as good as forgot about it. There has been no noticeable effort to grow and embellish the aura around Basmati as the preferred aromatic long grain rice from the Indian Punjab. No marketing. No branding. No advertising. No trade promotions. No effort whatsoever to create and enhance value. Much the same fate seems to await the Hapus. All the interest generated in procuring the GI appellation is likely to vapourise quickly if:
1. There is no recognized growers’ association taking charge of the GI.
2. The growers’ association does not put aside sufficient resources to promote and grow the Hapus franchise by focusing on its uniqueness, taste and place of origin.
3. There is a proactive effort to protect and promote the premiumness of the Hapus mangoes. This requires hard work in setting and auditing quality standards; working on better packaging; creating a visible logo and design that easily identifies the genuine Hapus, and ensures its distinctiveness; educating consumers on the superiority of this succulent variety of mangoes.
India’s track record with GI-tagging has been pretty poor. This is despite a lot of time, energy and expense having been expended on obtaining GI protection for the likes of Darjeeling Tea, Pochampally Ikat, Mysore Silk, Kota Doria, Kullu Shawls, Madhubani Paintings, Muga Assam Silk, Bastar Dhokra, Goan Feni, Bikaneri Bhujia, Paithani Sarees, Firozabad Glass, Khurja Pottery, Patan Patola, Banaras Brocades and even the Banglar Rasogolla. Even the holy Tirupati laddoo enjoys a GI-tag. But frankly, most of this tagging, especially for products like Navara Rice, Coimbatore Wet Grinder, Kondapalli Bommallu, Allahabad Surkha Guava, Udupi Malligae, Dharwad Pedha, Eathomozhy Tall Coconut, Khirsapati (Himsagar) Mango, Puneri Pagadi, Siddipet Gollabama, Pattamadai Pai, Nachiarkoil Kuthuvilakku, Khatamband, Guledgudd Khana, and such achieves little or no purpose. It satisfies the vanity of a few directly involved in the product or industry but over the years has achieved little in creating economic value addition to the GI-tagged products. The Banglar Rasogolla, for example, got many headlines and much media coverage when Bengal and Odisha laid claim to its heritage and GI. Once the media hype died down, there were and there are no efforts to create 1. distinctiveness 2. exclusivity 3. better quality 4. perception of premiumness 5. enhanced consumer preference.
To figure out what best to do with a GI tag, we in India need to take a leaf from Juan Valdez, a fictional character who has appeared in advertisements for the National Federation of Coffee Growers of Colombia since 1958, representing a Colombian coffee farmer. He typically appears with his mule Conchita, carrying sacks of harvested coffee beans. He has become an icon for Colombia as well as coffee in general. Valdez was first created by Doyle Dane Bernbach (DDB), the ad agency, with the goal of distinguishing 100 per cent Colombian coffee from coffee blended with beans from other countries. Today Juan Valdez is a global icon and the Colombian coffee he sells is an undisputed world leader.
Unfortunately, in India, while the craze for registration of GIs gained momentum over the past few years, there really has been no strategy for using the GI to commercial advantage, especially in global markets. Global models of GI protection have always emphasized quality control, supply chain integrity and enforcement by way of continuous policing of the market. The likes of Colombian coffee, Havana cigars, Champagne, Florida orange juice, Idaho potatoes, Tennessee whiskey, Vermouth de Chambéry and others have spent large sums of money in organized marketing and value creation to grow the exclusivity and premiumness attached to their products. All of these now enjoy global recognition and awareness, and are the preferred products/brands in their domains.
The Hapus deserves a better deal. As the King of Indian Mangoes, and a significant foreign exchange earner, it requires the direct blessings and support of the Devendra Fadnavis government, which would do well to partner with The Agricultural and Processed Food Products Export Development Authority (APEDA), a government of India body that led the India initiative on Basmati. If India were to aggressively market and promote the Hapus in global markets, it would fetch higher prices and better returns for growers in India. As a result acreage under cultivation could go up, growers would become more quality conscious and the Hapus would further add glitter and glamour to its crown as India’s most coveted mango.
Sandeep Goyal is an advertising veteran. He worked with Indian authorities on the Basmati GI protection in the 1990s. Carol Goyal is a lawyer with special interest in intellectual property matters.