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Yet another business meet by Kerala

K.G. Kumar

LAST week Mr P.K. Kunhalikutty, Kerala's Minister for Industries and IT, announced that the State Government would organise a business-to-business meet in Kochi from February 12-14, 2004, especially for small and medium enterprises (SMEs).

The event is to be conducted by the Department of Industries, Government of Kerala, the Kerala Bureau of Industrial Promotion (K-BIP), the Kerala State Small Industries Association (KSSIA), and the Kerala chapters of the Confederation of Indian Industry (CII) and the Federation of Indian Chambers of Commerce and Industry (FICCI).

The meet, which the government plans to make an annual affair, is meant to prove that Kerala has the entrepreneurial ability to manufacture high-quality products. The Minister claims that many of the State's traditional industries, mainly in the SME sector, produce a number of world-class products. However, these remain unknown to the outside world in the absence of proper marketing support and infrastructure for international marketing.

The meet's emphasis will be on "selling Kerala's products to the world and not so much on bringing in investments," the Minister was quoted in this paper as telling reporters.

The event will focus on promoting sectors such as coir, handicrafts, handlooms, light engineering, food and spices, ayurveda and so on. The government also hopes that it will provide an opportunity for the State's SMEs to develop a global outlook by interacting with buyers from around the world. Already, claim the organisers, trade representatives from around 14 countries have confirmed their participation.

All this sounds very good and well-intentioned, and the involvement of so many high-profile organisations in the forthcoming show adds more than mere glamour — it sends across a message of corporate commitment. Or does it really?

The plain fact is, Kerala has seen one too many business meets. None of them have resulted in any earth-shaking investments or any paradigm shift in the discourse of business in the State. Life goes on much as before — leisurely, almost torpidly, with hardly any flutter of industrial hyperactivity.

Clearly, business meets do not industrialise a State. To try and project the proposed Kochi conflux as an inspired effort to do some niche marketing for specialised, ethnic wares is to pull wool over the public's eyes. The only beneficiaries from such meetings are the organisers — both reputation-wise and financially.

However, the irony is that, knowingly or unknowingly, the State Government is not barking up the wrong tree. Only, it's looking the wrong way as it barks.

Consider the current debate raging among developing countries about a potentially new source of economic and cultural empowerment, revolving around the potential commercial, cultural and rural development gain the current dispensation of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the Agreement on Trade-Related Aspects of Intellectual Property Rights (TRIPS).

This potential gain relates to `geographical indications' (GIs), that is, words, symbols, phrases, images and the like that identify a good as originating in a specific region, where the given quality, reputation or other attribute of the good is essentially attributable to its geographical origin.

Thus, Kerala can claim the famous "Aranmula mirror" and Malabar black pepper, to name just two possibilities, as its own GIs, to be developed, promoted and protected globally, just as France zealously guards its Champagne.

Rather than showcase the usual run-of-the-mill wares of the small-scale sector, the Government would have done better to shift the focus of the proposed Kochi meet in this direction. But that requires considerable effort — both physical and intellectual — from the organizers.

Far easier to rake in the usual suspects and put together yet another tamasha.

The writer can be contacted at kg@tug.org.in

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