Since India opened its economy in the 90s, the government seems to be repeatedly caught by surprised by the need to protect the collective intellectual property of Indian culture.
Years ago, I did a story about how a multi-national chemical company swooped in and patented the active ingredients of the neem tree. The neem tree is omni-present in every village in India and knowledge of it’s uses have been passed down through the ages. Considered sacred, every part of this amazing tree has a use. Most commonly, the twigs are used as a poor man’s tooth brush.
My parents grew up using a neem twig to clean their teeth and gums every morning and you can still see small twigs for sale in village markets. The leaves, the bark, the wood all have medicinal uses from everything from an insecticide to birth control.
In 1992, W.R. Grace, using U.S. patent laws secured rights to the active ingredient and claimed it as their own. They also started suing Indian companies who were making incesticide using the same ingredients – something they had learned from the common cultural knowledge.
Since then this case has become an international dispute – and launched the idea of ‘biopiracy,’ around the world. The question is defining ‘intellectual property’ as belonging to a culture that birthed the idea or the multi-national corporation, which created a product from this knowledge as well as its own research? For now, the patent is still standing, despite efforts to revoke it.
Now the exquisite hand-woven fabric called “khadi’ is facing the same battle. Khadi is the original Indian textile – seen as the ultimate symbol of sustainability. No energy is required at all to make cotton fiber into this fabric. The great Mahatma Gandhi celebrated weaving khadi as a meditation and a way for India’s masses to sustain themselves with dignity.
I have to agree with him. I’ve been to rural areas where there is no reliable water or electricity – and yet, khadi spinning and weaving sustains everyone.
It seems that just as the Indian government is finding some success in promoting ‘khadi’ as a brand, companies in Germany, Spain and Hungary have trademarked the name ‘khadi’ and applied it to everything from machine-made cloth to shampoo in European markets.
It seems the word ‘khadi’ is becoming one of those words that can be applied to any product that the producers want to be seen as ‘eco-friendly.’ What do you think?
Among textile lovers, real khadi is like treasured gold. It’s not easy to find real khadi – cloth where the yarn is actually twisted together by hand. This hand-twisting makes the fabric incredibly soft – in part because the fibers have been handled so much.
Unlike fibers that go into mills to be processed into cloth – khadi does not require any chemicals to be processed. We use a simple starch made with Basmati rice and water – and then wash it out after we take it off the loom.
We already offer hundreds of varieties of ‘khadi.’ I continue to search for more to offer our customers - as a way of preserving this amazing fabric and keep this knowledge alive.
For now, the Indian government is mulling ‘future course of action’ including taking the issue up with the EU. Let’s hope khadi fares better than the neem tree.