Geographical Indicators (GI) are seen as tools that help rural communities and support local businesses. GI-certified products provide consumers with information about their origin and method of production and also enable GI certified producers to demonstrate their commitment to broader societal issues, for example, by adopting environmental, health, and labour-friendly policies. GIs are also seen as an intellectual property regime that belongs to developing economies as compared to other forms of intellectual property such as patent which is heavily dominated by developed notions. However, there are many case studies across developing countries that challenge the aforesaid notion. For example, the highly profitable tequila industry in Mexico is owned by large multinational companies, and the local producers do not have a share in the profit-making process. Similarly, in Ethopia, the farmers of the famed coffee earn very little, other multinational companies such as Starbucks that work as middlemen earn most of the profit. At times, the GI rewards systems of exploitation established during colonisation.
Darjeeling Tea is a world-renowned tea. As the name suggests, Darjeeling Tea is grown in the hilly Himalayan town of Darjeeling in northern West Bengal. Darjeeling used to be densely forested and was inhabited by the Lepcha tribes who used to practice shifting cultivation. It became a British enclave when the Britishers were looking for a scenic hilly town to escape the Indian summer. One of the British settlers there was Dr A. Campbell experimented with growing tea there and found considerable success. In 1856, the first tea garden was established. During the initial days, the Britishers looked to employ Lepchas as garden workers, however, they were unsuccessful, but the Britishers did manage to take over their land as more tea gardens were being established. Then the Britishers shifted their sights to Nepali workers as a form of labour. Although the Nepali workers came on their violation, or due to pressures from their kin, they were not allowed to leave.
In its early days, the industry was viewed as a replacement for Chinese black tea. However, by the early 1900s, the unique muscatel flavour of Darjeeling tea helped it become a brand of its own. The demand for the tea increased in Europe. The expansion of the tea industries in the region was built upon the widescale exploitation of the Nepali workers in the region. The Nepali workers could not easily leave the region due to kinship and debts owned by them.
The exploitation is gendered, generational and racist. Many of the tea workers and pluckers today are descendants of tea workers who had arrived from Nepal during the British era. Nepali people make up 90% of the workforce. With over 70% of the tea pluckers are women. It is believed that their delicate hands or nimble fingers better enable them to pluck the leaves. The stereotype of Nepali tea plucker women having delicate prevents them from having better- paying jobs. As evident from above, the restriction of growing tea in these 87 gardens already challenges the notion of Darjeeling tea GI being a community right because, at the maximum, there can be 87 beneficiaries who can sell their tea as Darjeeling Tea. However, the reality is that the number of beneficiaries is far lower than 87 as several companies hold multiple tea gardens. Multiple companies own more than one tea garden, making the number of beneficiaries far lesser.
Since independence, the industry has tried to rewrite its colonial past as its legacy rather than a system of exploitation. It is due to a few factors. First, a product just by having a GI tag cannot find success. Efforts have to be taken to market the product properly. Any marketer would want to remove any negative connotations from the product. Second, aligning itself with a “glorious past” helps its marketing efforts even further.
Further, the main consumer base of the tea has always been Europe and other western countries. Over the years, these western countries have become conscious consumers that seek to promote social and environmental sustainability with their consumer choices. To still be palpable to the European tastebuds, the tea has had to rebrand itself to show itself as socially and environmentally sustainable. The notions of GI helping local communities and being organic do help the marketing efforts of the industry. Along with GI certification, Fair Tea Trade which does not help the workers much as the workers still face issues like wage stagnation, and dwindling working conditions, suicide by workers, starvation, and soil pollution.
In particular, the paper analyses how GI has been used as a tool to hide the system of exploitation in Darjeeling and further propagate social injustice. The industry propagates social injustice in two ways. First, by denying the exploitative system of labour and secondly, by denying ownership of the GI to marginalised communities and workers who have worked on those gardens for generations.
Darjeeling Tea has chosen to focus solely on the physical factors that enable a unique flavour of Darjeeling Tea, barely mentioning the human-based factors that enable it. However, human based factors or traditional knowledge do play a part. The method of plucking a tea leaf can lend significantly to the taste of the tea. The tea bushes in the Darjeeling region are the rare Camellia Sinensis, picking tea leaves there is different than in other parts of India, and shoots of two leaves and one bud must be picked. The skill involved in plucking is often not mentioned in popular literature and even the GI application filed by the Tea Board of India in 2004 did not mention the method of plucking as one of the factors that lend to its uniqueness. Neither does it mention how the Nepali workers that came to work in the region were recruited, which is arguably an important part of its history and establishment.
The rationale behind GI legislation and the commonly perceived notion as evinced in this paper suggests that GI was supposed to empower local communities and support rural development. However, the same is not reflected in the Geographical Indicator’s Act, 2004. The act only functions to recognise appellation of origin for products, nothing more. The word of the law combined with its commonly perceived notion means that an industry could use its appellation of origin status to show itself as more ethical and fair paying, along with other certifications such as fair trade. The Darjeeling Tea industry showcases how owners of estates can capitalise on traditional knowledge of their workers and market the plight of their exploited workers as smiles and guardians of the landscape into traditional knowledge and earn profits. Further, as the case of Darjeeling shows having a GI status helps a product tie its uniqueness to physical characteristics of a place, sufficiently hides it colonial past and disregards any other system or practice that might enable the production of that product.