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Khadi India’s notice to FabIndia kindles debate on who owns khadi

Khadi India's legal notice to Fabindia opens a larger debate on Khadi ownership and what it means for aspirant buyers of India's freedom fabric

Brands that put out Khadi products or garments must, in accordance with this existing legal framework, apply for a Khadimark Regulation Certificate. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.
Brands that put out Khadi products or garments must, in accordance with this existing legal framework, apply for a Khadimark Regulation Certificate. Photo: Pradeep Gaur/Mint.

New Delhi: Just before the working week ended on Saturday, the state-run Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) sent a legal notice to Fabindia for continuing to sell garments in the name of khadi.

The communication forwarded by KVIC’s media cell called it a “strongly worded legal notice" that stressed its ownership over brand khadi, a symbol of India’s freedom struggle that went on to become the uniform of choice for post-independence politicians and then evolved into a fashion statement.

To quote from the notice, “the organisation (Fabindia) was continuing to sell its garments in the name and style of khadi despite earlier warnings by KVIC and assurances by Fabindia that it will not do so. It is an illegal act and amounts to indulging in unfair trade practice."

KVIC threatened Fabindia with legal action if the latter did not stop the practice immediately. Established in 1960, Fabindia Overseas Pvt. Ltd, an Indian brand, claims to be the country’s largest retail platform for goods produced by artisans who live largely in rural areas. The KVIC notice alleges that Fabindia uses the word “khadi" on its price tags while calling them “Fabindia cotton" on the labels stuck to the garments. “This misleads consumers," said KVIC chairperson V.K. Saxena.

Citing the KVIC Act of 1956 and the Khadi Mark Regulations, of 2003 notified by the union ministry of micro, small and medium Enterprises, Saxena says “no product can be sold as khadi without the Khadi Mark tag. Not only that, any private brand or producer of khadi must buy khadi from a government-cleared khadi institution. This is the only way to protect khadi artisans," he says.

Brands that put out khadi products or garments must, in accordance with this existing legal framework, apply for a Khadimark Regulation Certificate.

From 2 October 2016, this procedure was made simpler and faster, according to Saxena. The KVIC website shows a Khadi Registration Seva tag which clarifies the 45-day process. “Rs10,000 as fee for the certificate and a list of 25 spinners and 5 weavers is all we seek. Anyone can sell khadi as long as they follow KVIC’s checks and balances and follow regulations," said Saxena.

He also reiterated that there had been official, written back-and-forth with Fabindia since August 2015, when the company had put out advertisements on the sale of khadi products. “They were in negotiations with us since last year but did not adhere to the procedural formalities of Khadi Mark certificate despite agreeing to do so in written communication."

Fabindia CEO Viney Singh said in an e-mailed statement: “We are in receipt of the notice and have responded to KVIC, requesting a meeting with the designated authorities to understand the issues that have been raised, and to resolve them."

Given KVIC’s increasing assertion of its legal ownership of khadi, companies like Raymond, for instance, applied for a regulation certification last year to sell khadi fabrics, according to Saxena. Numerous other khadi players remain unaware about the obligations they have to KVIC if they use the word khadi on their tags.

Also read: Why Modi is upset his picture replaced Mahatma Gandhi’s on ‘khadi’ calendar

And that’s exactly the warp and weft of the khadi story. While Fabindia and KVIC may soon come to a truce given the legal binding, what must consumers make of what is sold in stores and brands, including websites, under the name of khadi?

Khadi exponent Rta Kapur Chishti’s label Taanbaan uses handspun, handwoven Khadi but nowhere does it say “khadi". By definition though, khadi is “handspun, handwoven fabric".

In fact, Chishti, who has always raised questions about the authenticity of what’s paraded as khadi says most, if not all khadi sold by KVIC institutions is from semi-mechanized Ambar Charkhas.

“Desi charkhas have been completely forsaken because they are slow in production," she said.

For the aspirant khadi wearer, its brand value as the fabric of freedom endorsed by the greatest handloom marketer of all times—Mahatma Gandhi—is clear. What’s not clear though is what does khadi really mean? Is it handloom? Is it handspun and handwoven? Is it okay to accept Ambar Charkha Khadi sold by KVIC and its regulated institutions as authentic khadi because of the Khadi Mark tag? Legally, the last is correct, but realistically, there are very few khadi centres that still make handspun, handwoven khadi.

So in a way Ambar Charkha Khadi is authentic khadi given that it carries the tag? So what happened to Gandhi’s handspun khadi?

Those buying khadi from fashion designers or established and credible brands may even be deeper in the dark about how this “authenticity" should be defined. Should they accept Arvind Mills Ltd Khadi Denims, an eco-friendly and laudable piece of clothing that carries artisan names on its labels, as “authentic"? Were khadi jeans introduced in 2015 by Levi’s genuine khadi or not? (Levi’s no longer sells that range). What does a khadi sari by Sabyasachi Mukherjee really mean?

Designer Shani Himanshu of 11:11 Celldsgn, known for its khadi creations including, indigo-dyed khadi jeans, says, “All our creations are 100% khadi. I do know that one has to register to get access to the khadi logo, this requires paperwork and submission of fees at KVIC Delhi or Mumbai. All our purchases of khadi though are from KVIC. Otherwise any weaver can say this is khadi and it is difficult to know whether it is woven on the Ambar Charkha or an industrial Charkha."

Under the heap of ambiguities (largely for the consumer) is a broader and messy khadi war. Is Fabindia within its rights to challenge the Khadi Mark notification of 2003? Should private brands wage a battle with the ministry of micro, small and medium enterprises (MSME)-controlled KVIC over the ownership of khadi? Is khadi’s economic growth as an aspirational fabric and “protection of rural artisans"—as Saxena claims—strictly the prerogative of the government?

Khadi India may need to do a lot of efficient and unbiased work to employ vigilance. Taking out the numerous, unlisted spurious khadi outlets across the country is one. But there are other concerns. Especially as there are industry rumours that Baba Ramdev’s Patanjali Ayurved brand currently in the fray to make khadi jeans could be clouding KVIC’s stance against Fabindia. It wasn’t so long back after all, when Baba Ramdev raised a hue and cry over Fabindia being a “foreign company".

Whose khadi is it then?

Nikita Doval and Sounak Mitra contributed to this story.

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