From Reliance Trends to Tjori, ethnic fashion brands trip over GI

(Left) A pouch embroidered in the Toda community’s trademark black-and-red embroidery that is at the centre of the dispute | Photo: iStock
It was a routine promotion by one of the big online ethnic-wear retailers, but one that went horribly wrong. Even as it drew the attention of the growing tribe of ethnic fashion enthusiasts, as it was meant to, the ad also set off the alarm bells among the Todas, a tribe that lives in the Nilgiri mountains of Tamil Nadu. 

Surprised to see a retailer promote their trademark black and red embroidery work (pohor) without any acknowledgement of its GI tagged origins and worse still, labelling it wrongly, the community fought back with legal notices with help from a group of lawyers, NGOs and local artisans and store owners. So far the retailers have maintained a standard denial, saying there has been no wrongdoing on their part. But many sense trouble ahead for retailers, especially those that have mushroomed online and are positioning themselves as purveyors of an authentic Indian product.

 The two retailers under fire in this case are Reliance Trends, for its fashion label Siyahi and the e-commerce portal Tjori. Both have been accused of misleading consumers and violating the rights of the GI tag holders. While Reliance Trends refused to respond to questions sent for this story, Tjori said it was taking down the products while it investigates the matter. 

The GI tag is held jointly by Pompuhar (the Tamil Nadu Handicrafts Development Corporation), Keystone Foundation (an NGO working in the Nilgiris) and the Toda Nalavaazhvu Sangam (a body of Toda artisans and a non-Toda dentist based in Coonoor). Priti David who worked on the story for People’s Archive of Rural India (PARI) says that it is unfortunate that crafts people make the most beautiful things, but they are the most disenfranchised. It is not just one embroidery style or a single tribe that is facing the brunt of blatant misuse, the story runs a similar course across communities. 

As David researched the story she found that the portals were selling a Toda embroidered saree for anywhere between Rs 2,500-3000 while the authentic product costs closer to Rs 7,000. The huge discrepancy in prices led people to investigate further and they discovered that retailers were passing off machine printed work as the real deal, instead of sourcing authentic hand-embroidered work from the community.

While the legal notices can act as a deterrent, what happens next? Mathew John, founder-CEO of Keystone Foundation who is joint holder of the GI tag for the embroidered work says that GI tagging and monitoring is a complex and expensive process. It took five years to get it done for the Toda embroidery. “Who takes it forward? The group involved in the work is small, just about 300 women in the tribe who do this as part time work after their day’s chores are done and they don’t have the resources, nor does the NGO,” John said. 

Poorly organised crafts groups and scanty resources could give retailers a free run and the tag may just remain a worthless piece of paper. However, Zaheda Mulla, a lawyer who worked towards GI tagging the Toda embroidery, believes that there is a lot that can be done. 

People need to come together and commit to a solution said Mulla. India could learn from how the EU protects its food, wine and cheese GIs, she said. They set prohibitive fines for even the slightest infringement and she added, in India it should be mandatory for retailers selling ethnic wear to give credit to the crafts people and source from authorised users of the GI tag.

However, most people said that the task of monitoring and implementing GI tags is daunting. Even if one focuses just on the handloom sector, a position paper released by FICCI earlier this year showed that in India, nearly 27.83 lakh handloom households are engaged in weaving and allied activities, out of which 87 per cent are in rural areas. The diversity and spread is staggering, retailers said.

However, some attempts are underway. Amazon India, according to the position paper, is keen to promote the Indian Handloom Brand and Handloom Mark products on its marketplace. It has launched Weavesmart, an e-commerce store for handlooms in India that currently has more than 3,000 weavers in its network and more than 20,000 products. This could encourage other retail brands too to wear their ethnicity on their sleeve.

The GI violation was originally investigated and reported by the People's Archive of Rural India (PARI). You can read the full story here

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