Tuesday, January 29, 2008

Whose Pashmina?

Squabbles between Pakistan and India over trade-related issues are multiplying. The latest to erupt is over intellectual property protection for the prized pashmina wool and the products made from it, by getting a geographical indication tag. In dispute is the application filed by a Jammu and Kashmir-based handicrafts association to register “Kashmiri Pashmina” as the exclusive brand for products made in this Indian state. This will lend “Kashmiri Pashmina” the same kind of brand protection enjoyed by, say, champagne and Darjeeling tea. And the challenger, predictably, is a pashmina-trading organisation in Pakistan which wants products produced in the part of Kashmir under that country’s occupation to be given the same IPR protection.
Prima facie, Pakistan would appear within its rights to put forth such a plea, as pashmina is produced from the under-growth of the hair of a special changthangi or pashmina breed of goat that has been indigenous to the high altitudes of the Himalayas, including the Pakistan-occupied region. But if that logic is applied, Nepal too should be made a party to this patent protection as its upper mountainous reaches have also been home to pashmina goats for thousands of years and pashmina-based products have been woven there for a long period. Even in India, for that matter, pashmina goats have not been confined to the Kashmir region, and have inhabited the higher hills of Himachal Pradesh and Uttaranchal as well. The real difference lies in the quality, as also exclusivity, of the pashmina fleece and its products produced in different regions though, admittedly, all kinds of genuine pashmina wool possess the envious trait of being incomparably soft. India’s case might be that additional scientific effort has gone into refining the quality of pashmina and improving the fleece yield of these goats.
While it must be presumed that these aspects will be kept in mind by the geographical indications tribunal when considering the application in question, it is important to recognise that pashmina imitations have been in circulation, and been widely traded, in many parts of the world, jeopardising the monopoly of the Himalayan region over this unique wool. For most westerners, cashmere is a synonym for pashmina and even genuine pashmina shawls, scarves and other garments made in Kashmir are traded as cashmere shawls or scarves. Worse still, the growing demand and below-par supplies of genuine pashmina garments have enabled some unscrupulous manufacturers to make and sell products of soft synthetic viscose as pashmina products, and thus to take advantage of the high prices commanded by pashmina. All this needs to be curbed, so fighting the IPR battle for getting a geographical indication tag is only a part of the battle.
So, while the need for getting intellectual property safeguards for pashmina is self-evident, it is not pashmina alone that needs to be protected. There are other products as well, like aromatic basmati rice, which are the common heritage of the sub-continent and which, therefore, need to be safeguarded through mutual cooperation rather than confrontation. Had Pakistan cooperated with India in getting a geographical indication tag for basmati in the same way that it now seeks protection for its pashmina, it would have provided a basis for working together. It is not too late for the two countries to sit together and work out a joint strategy on such issues.

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