The Indian toy story

The Indian toy story

Channapatna toys. Credit: DH File Photo

In a push to the Indian toy industry, the government hosted the “India Toy Fair 2021” in March. The toy fair saw participation from several toymakers across India including toys that are protected as ‘geographical indications' (GI). In keeping with the go-green theme of the fair, eco-friendly toys made of wood and natural dyes are of particular interest. 

Internationally, it was reported that the toy industry performed well in 2020. Wooden toys have gained special popularity. In the West, sellers such as Grimms, Grapat etc. are renowned for their non-toxic wooden toys. Their products are developed keeping in mind the learning requirements of children. There is evidently a big market for wooden toys. Unfortunately, while the global toy market is estimated at $90 billion, India’s share is just 0.5% ($500 million).

India is not a newcomer to the wooden toy-making industry. Toy-making clusters have existed in India for centuries. So much so, at least five wooden toy clusters are protected as GIs in India. These include Channapatna toys (Karnataka), Nirmal toys (Telangana), Kinhal toys (Karnataka), Varanasi wooden lacquer and toys (Uttar Pradesh) and Etikoppaka toys (Andhra Pradesh). In order to obtain GI protection, these clusters have shown that toy making is a legacy that has been inherited and passed down through centuries. Hundreds of artisan families are engaged in this craft and have settled down in local regions conducive for their craft. Their toys are eco-friendly and are made from locally sourced wood and natural dyes. 

Given GI protection and the increased demand for eco-friendly toys, there is potential for these rural clusters to develop. GI protection is aimed at empowering local communities. It is a ‘collective right’ that is granted to associations of manufacturers or organisations that represent the interest of such manufacturers. Through GI registration, local toy manufacturers can brand their toys with a GI tag. The tag is reflective of the craftsmanship, environment and heritage of a particular region. This makes the toys exclusive and exotic. The owners of the GI control the marketing of the toys and also benefit from the increased sale. It is therefore in the interest of the local communities to register GIs in a collective capacity as associations of manufactures. 

It is, however, surprising to see that artisans from most of these toy-making clusters haven’t formed their own associations to register, control and directly benefit from the use of their GI tags. Instead, state governments have registered and are therefore in control of the GIs. For instance, the GI for the famous Channapatna toys is owned and controlled by the Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation Limited. A study showed that out of 100 GI registrations, 57 belonged to the state or central government. Since producers themselves may not own/control their GI tags, it is not clear how the objectives of a GI registration as a ‘collective right’ will be fulfilled. 

In addition to the ownership conundrum, there is also the question of quality. To remain competitive, quality assurance is important. A quality control order had been issued by the government for electronic and non-electronic toys. In December 2020, however, the government exempted toys registered as GIs from following these standards. Such a move may be detrimental since consumers expect a certain quality of products. Especially when they pay premium prices accompanying GI tags. If quality varies, the credibility of GI bearing toys may be impacted.

While the Toy Fair was a good marketing step, much needs to be done to revive and realise the true potential of GI registrations. In doing so, we may also achieve the “Make in India” dream, at least for wooden toys. Insightful product development is the need of the hour. Toys that combine modern education, learning techniques and that are eco-friendly are more attractive in this day and age. Governments that control GIs should be made accountable to toy manufacturers and ensure that benefits flow to the local communities. 

Hoping for a happy Indian toy story. 

(The writer is a lawyer based in Bengaluru)