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Geographical Indication certificate for Benarsi saris

Dec 04, 2009

The Indian government has granted Geographical Indication (GI) certificate to the weavers of Varanasi. Henceforth only those saris will be considered ‘Benarsi’, which are produced in Varanasi, Azamgarh, Chandauli, Jaunpur, Mirzapur and Sant Ravi Dass Nagar.

On September 4, a small piece of paper spread a shield over some 12 lakh weavers. Though not all of them know of it yet, the newest Geographical Indication (GI) certificate from India declares that henceforth only saris produced in Varanasi, Azamgarh, Chandauli, Jaunpur, Mirzapur and Sant Ravi Dass Nagar (Bhadohi) will be considered Benarsi saris.

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The certificate covers silk brocades like Amru, textile goods not covered elsewhere such as bed and table covers, silk saris and dress materials such as Jamdani, Jangla, Jamawar Tanchoi, Tissue, cut work, butidar and silk embroidery saris.

A GI certificate, which is granted by the Centre under the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999, is both a guarantee and protection. It guarantees that the product under consideration was produced in a specific geographical region or locality from where it draws its special characteristics.

It assures the buyer that his money has been spent on a genuine good while it protects the producer against cheap imitations (in this case computer-printed saris from Surat and saris on Chinese crepe) trying to pass off as genuine artifacts.

The miseries of Varanasi's silk sari weavers have been documented since 1995, when the government imposed a ban on weaving of Chinese silk – forcing weavers to buy the more expensive Bangalore silk instead.

However in 2001, under WTO negotiations on import tariffs on textiles such as saris, the government removed quantitative restrictions on silk imports, thus flooding the market with plain Chinese crepe fabric which began to eat into the Benarsi silk sari market because of its low cost. With the economic downturn export orders began to decline as well, further ruining the market.

In addition, 80% of the market was captured by power loom owners spawning cheap computer-assisted designs on saris produced much quickly than the handloom product, and selling them at less than half the price of a real Benarsi sari. However, the power loom itself is not the villain of this piece.

According to figures from the Ministry of Textiles, these looms employ close to 48.6 lakh workers, manufacture 62% of the cloth produced in the country. In striking contrast the number of handlooms has remained static at 38.91 lakhs during the same period.

Social activist and writer Bharat Dogra points out that the problems are long-standing. As he observes: "The crisis of Varanasi's silk weavers is deep-rooted. Why should a highly skilled community face such acute difficulties? The government, despite its pre-independence commitment to the handloom sector, has been able to put policies on paper only. The media too has looked at the issue only at a very superficial level."

Dogra's view is well supported by the facts. India's handloom sector is the biggest in the world and employs 65 lakh workers directly or indirectly.

According to the Report of the Working Group on Textiles and Jute Industry For the Eleventh Five Year Plan (2007-12) it contributes about 15% of the country's cloth production, and brings in hundreds of millions of dollars in export earnings annually.

This low-capital-intensive industry has no import content in assets/raw materials and presents a vast array of environmentally friendly products. In addition, as the report suggests, it has the "potential to arrest migration of population to urban areas", a growing concern in recent years.

In 2001, such considerations prompted "Find Your Feet" (FYF), the Indian arm of a UK-based charity to make the first efforts to assist weavers, primarily by setting up self-help groups that allowed them to work without middlemen in the economic chain. The most important step was the building of the Benares Bunkar Samiti (BBS), an aggregate of 97 self-help groups of weavers and artisans, with 1296 members spread across two blocks (of Chiraigaon, 49 villages and Cholapur, 13 villages).

As on September 30, 2009, the total savings of the SHGs members was Rs 18,38,155, total grant of Revolving Fund from FYF was Rs.4,94,845, total interest earned from members was Rs 158,232 taking the total Group Fund to Rs.24,91,232 while the percentage of group loan recovery stood at a handsome 72%.

In April 2005, after the pilot had been successful, DFID stepped in to support FYF to fund the project with 245,399 British Pounds for five years, money which will now help in expanding the project to the neighbouring districts of Mau and Ghazipur.

"The weavers had faced the worst of the crisis. Our first concern was only to have a revolving fund grow so that immediate livelihood issues could be tackled but one of our board members brought in the GI idea", says Savitri Sharma, director of FYF, India.

By 2004-5, with a lot of capacity building and training inputs from Saksham India Trust (SIT, the development resource cell of FYF), the BBS was ready to apply for the GI. BBS in fact became the first applicant for the GI.

In addition to the Indian government's own commitment to protecting Intellectual Property rights, the case for GI status for brocade and Benarsi saris received a boost from Supachai Panitchpakdi, Secretary General of the United Nation Conference Of Trade And Development (UNCTAD). During a visit to Varanasi in August 2008, he declared: "We would like to support the effort to have a formal geographical indication, of course, at national level. There would be a subsequent international recognition of this product of 'Banarsi silk sarees' and brocades and other products that should be gaining in terms of more value outside India as well." (The Economic Times, 19 August 2008).

[To read the full article, please click here]

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