Jute is identified primarily with dowdy sacks for the cement and sugar industries. But with better designs, a rising environmental concern and new marketing strategies, the Indian jute industry is marketing a range of everyday products made with the 'golden fibre' of which the country is the largest producer, consumer and exporter.
The industry, which in the past mainly focussed on packaging sacks used by the cement and sugar industries, is gearing up for a complete makeover, with a range of designer merchandise, including school bags carried by millions of children.
"When we talk about jute, people usually think sacks," said Atri Bhattacharya, secretary of the Jute Manufactures Development Council, one of the several organisations promoted by the government to help the jute industry.
"There are so many attractive items made of jute. It's so fashionable today. And the best part is it is eco-friendly, reusable," Bhattacharya, whose council is a representative body of growers, producers and exporters of jute, told IANS.
The council believes the ban on polythene bags by some states like Delhi were steps in the right direction for the eco-friendly fibre. That is the reason why the council has launched fresh ad campaigns, like the ones urging schoolchildren to switch to jute bags.
Designers and traders in jute goods said the offerings today included not just the traditional jute-based handicrafts but also clutch bags, party bags, laundry bags, rucksacks, gunny bags, totes, shopping bags and wine bags.
Such merchandise is now available not just in the numerous flea markets across the country but also at upscale stores like Fab India, the Santushti complex in the national capital, Anokhi designer stores and Nature Design Concepts.
Such products, the retailers said, cater to the tastes of the discerning buyer and are priced at some Rs.100 for a normal, plain vanilla bag, going up to even a few thousand rupees, depending on the designs and colours.
"You can carry them with elan," said Aditi Shukla, a student of fashion design in the national capital. "These green bags will be trend setters soon."
There are also socio-economic issues associated with jute. It supports four million farm families, mainly in the eastern states, notably West Bengal, and provides direct jobs to 260,000 industrial workers and 140,000 people in tertiary activities.
According to the council, India is the world's largest producer of jute-based goods, averaging 1.6 million tonnes per annum in the past five years with domestic sales of 1.4 million tonnes and exports of 285,000 tonnes.
India also accounts for two-thirds of the world jute production with the bulk of the production coming from West Bengal, Bihar, Assam, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh and Tripura. Most jute industries are also located in these states.
Industry experts said quality and pricing remained major issues coming in the way of promoting jute. "But we are looking at these factors. You must understand that unlike polythene, jute isn't a standardised product," Bhattacharya said.
"We are looking at a proper supply chain in Delhi where the off-take is good," he explained, adding that the same was being done in the tourist destinations of Uttarakhand and Himachal Pradesh, where polythene bags are banned.
"In Delhi, jute bags are also used in an institutional way. The demand is there and it's fulfilled accordingly. Unfortunately this does not happen in the same way in Kolkata or other cities," said Sanjay Kajaria, chairman of the Indian Jute Mills Association.
According to him, there were too many tiny players in the industry and that was fragmenting growth. "We are talking to the textile ministry to institutionalise the manufacturing process so that this problem gets addressed," Kajaria told IANS.
"Apart from the niche market, we should look at the volumes market where people will use jute bags for their daily use apart from fancy use," he said.