Thursday, December 31, 2009

Kerala: No coir in the coir land

Coir fibre.

Coir ropes.

A story heard in Kerala recently: A man who had been a coir worker all his life was struggling to maintain his family. There was no work, no money, no food. Finally he gave up all hope and decided to commit suicide.

But there was a problem there.

He couldn’t find a coir rope to hang himself. Only plastic ones were available. Having been a loyal coir man all his life, he didn’t want to finish his misery at the end of a synthetic substitute. And that too in 2009 which has been declared by the UN as the Year of the Natural Fibre!

Jokes apart, the situation of the coir industry in Kerala which used to manufacture 85% of India’s coir products, is in a critical stage. The shortage of coir fibre which is used to manufacture end products like mats and mattings has paralyzed this sector which employs about 400,000 people.

About 50% of the green husks of coconuts available in the coastal areas of Kerala were used for extracting fibre and the balance used as fuel. Traditionally the husks from which the fibre is obtained would be retted for a few months. They were then manually hammered on a block of wood with a thick stick to separate the fibre and pith.

This processing was exclusively the realm of women who form 80% of the industry’s workforce. Till a few decades back, a prominent morning sound in the coastal villages of southern Kerala was the tattoo of retted husks being beaten. That was the heartbeat of the land. The fibre extracted in the morning would be spun into strings in the afternoon. In the evening the women would take the day’s produce to the local bazaar and barter it for provisions.

Through a chain of middlemen, the coir strands would reach the factories of Alleppey which was the hub of the industry. Semi-mechanized coir factories were started in this port town from 1859. The business prospered and that led to destructive trade unionism. The workers resisted modernization of the plants. Finally the factories were forced to close down almost a century later. A new set of entrepreneurs and practice of farming out orders on contract replaced the old system. Whether that benefited the workers is questionable. Businessmen made money anyway.

The shortage for coir fibre was anticipated almost half a century back. In the 1970s the State Government enforced the Husk Control Act. The control of husk trading passed on to cooperative societies and licensed dealers. That does not seem to have helped the coir workers. The quantity of fibre availability did not increase


Actually two more factors affected fibre production adversely. One was the mdite disease that spread to most of the coconut growing areas reducing the yield drastically. The problem was first noticed over a century back but no successful way to tackle it has been discovered.

The second hitch was the objection to retting that arose due to the growing environmental consciousness. The process does pollute the water and pose a serious threat to marine life. That was the end of the traditional channel of coir fibre supply.

The government did come up with a solution. 55 or so mechanical fibre extraction units were started. The idea was sound but the implementation was not. Whoever might have benefited by this project did not include the coir industry. It was not long before these extraction units were closed down.

But alert businessmen took advantage of the situation. Pollachi in Kerala’s neighbouring Tamil Nadu State, soon developed into a major coir fibre supplier. For years now, Kerala’s coir industry has been depending on raw material from Pollachi.

But recently, this applecart has been upset by China which suddenly started buying coir fibre from Tamil Nadu at high prices. The Chinese purchases which totaled 4196 tons till September 2008, suddenly jumped to 19,443 tons this year, almost draining supplies to Kerala. And the cost of coir fibre escalated by 50%.

The economics of these exports to China is not really advantageous to the country. According to one estimate, earnings from an export of 35,000 tons of coir fibre are only Rs.40 crores. If the same quantity is processed in India to make end products, it would provide employment directly and indirectly to about 2 lakh people and earn foreign exchange worth Rs.400 crores. But the coir fibre dealer would rather take the immediate profit than wait for the eventual benefit to the country.

The Kerala Government and the Coir Board are trying to tackle the situation. But are they on the right track? The initial step that is planned is to renovate the old defunct fibre extraction units. One’s immediate reaction is that it would be more money down the drain.

There is heartening news though from the Central Coir Research Institute (CCRI). They seem to have succeeded on two fronts. CCRI has developed a mobile fibre extracting machine that would cost less than Rs.1 lakh against Rs.1 million for the earlier stationary units. Another important claim of the CCRI is that they have discovered a method of considerably reducing the fibre extracting time.

But the question is whether the public sector can deliver the new process to the coir industry efficiently, economically and fast. Or will the new developments go the same way as the earlier fibre extraction units?

(Photos: Dr. Sanjay Parwa. Copyright reserved.)


Happy Kitten said...

While I hope this industry is revived, I do hope we dont see the poor women huddled around the choir... I have read that it was not an easy task for these women and let me hope that they have now found better jobs...

Abraham Tharakan said...

Happy Kitten, thank you for the comment.
The toughest part of the woman's work in the coir industry used to be extracting the fibre by beating the husk. That is not required when they deal with ready to use fibre. And for spinning also equipments are available.

MANOJ said...

Hi, I am an MBA Student from University if Leicester, UK and currently doing my dissertation on coir industry. Apart from the recent problem like shortage of raw material or manpower. Industry also lacks in Marketing. I mean, not from the part of the government because they are doing excellent jobs. In some cases big companies should also try avoid middle man (Importers/distributors). And establish their own subsidiary or distribution hub, I think dan only we will be really globalizing ourselves.
Your comments will valuable for me..


Manoj Kaimal