The golden-yellow Muga Silk of Assam has been granted Geographical Indication (GI) registration by the GI Registry in Chennai. The registration was done on the basis of its uniqueness as a silk of given quality and characteristic attributable to the geographical area of Assam since time immemorial.
Silk, also known as the Queen of Textiles, is known for its exquisite qualities since the Chinese Empress discovered it in her tea cup, as the famous legend goes. There are five major types of silk of commercial importance, obtained from different species of silkworms which in turn feed on a number of food plants. These are Mulberry, Tasar, Munga and Eri. Muga, the golden-yellow colour silk is prerogative of India and the pride of Assam state. It is obtained from semi-domesticated multivoltine silkworm, Antheraea assamensis. These silkworms feed on the aromatic leaves of Som and Soalu plants and are reared on trees endemic to the Brahmaputra Valley of Assam. Muga culture is specific to the state of Assam and an integral part of the tradition and culture of that state.
The distinctive ‘golden thread’, linked to Assam’s Brahmaputra valley and tracing back to being traded through the Silk Route, has become the 38th product that has got protection from the GI Registry in Chennai after Madhubani painting, Alleppey coir, Mysore sandal soap, Coorg orange, Kancheepuram silk and Solapur terry towel.
The Patent Information Centre, under the aegis of Assam Science Technology and Environment Council (PIC, ASTEC), had applied for the registration and done the scientific fact-finding work to get GI on Muga silk. ASTEC is an autonomous body under the Assam Government’s Science and Technology (S&T) Department.
GI is granted when a product is distinctively linked to a region or endemic to popular culture in that the process of making the product is community knowledge handed down traditionally. The protection is granted under the Geographical Indication of Goods (Registration and Protection) Act, 1999. A GI label will bring in standardization of processes among the local families who work on producing the silk, which in turn would help commercialization and export of the product.
Interestingly, though muga belongs to Assam, moves made by the Central Silk Board (CSB) to encourage farmers in West Bengal, Sikkim and Andhra Pradesh to produce this unique variety of silk in the past few years had almost deprived the state of the GI tag, therefore a need to protect the natural fibre in case of future infringement made ASTEC to pursue for GI registration. It even placed references from Kautilya’s Arthashastra and Edward A Gait’s A History of Assam to drive home the point that muga belonged only to Assam.
Confining the production to the traditional area is the most critical link in the case of a product branded as a geographical indication. This requirement is inherent in the definition of a geographical indication under Article 22 of TRIPs wherein a given quality, reputation or other characteristics of the good must be essentially attributable to its geographical origin. Further, this becomes essential since very often the quality of the product is inextricably linked to the natural or human factors in the geographical area. A particular quality or characteristic will be lost or whittled away if replicated outside the traditional production area.
The GI protection is not international. Similar protection in other jurisdictions has to be sought for. Muga is the first item from the state to obtain the GI tag, with a variety of Assam tea and joha-a rice variety with a typical aroma also waiting in line for such recognition.
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