The rope has almost reached their necks. Kerala’s coir industry, once exporting 70 per cent of its produce to Western markets, is now struggling to stay away from the gallows.
Step in the coastal town of Alapuzha, 140 km north of Thiruvananthapuram, and it becomes apparent that the idyllic backwaters and lush green vegetation bordering the town is deceptive — the town is fast turning into a graveyard for the 200-year-old coir industry.
Though four lakh men are still linked to the industry, young workers are hard to find. the ones that are still trying to make a living out of it crossed their 50th birthday a few years ago.
“My whole life is intertwined with coir and I am unable to dismantle these looms,” said K. Kamalasanan, 63. He owns six looms, but most of them are lying unused.
Kamalasanan has invested 40 years in this industry and can’t think of doing anything else. He comes from Muhamma, a region that has the highest concentration of coir workers. But both his sons are automobile mechanics now.
“I hardly earn between Rs 300 and Rs 500 a week these days. We do other odd jobs to keep the hearth burning,” remarked K. Usha, a 46-year old worker.
Seventy per cent of the workforce consists of women. And they are deep in debt. Among household unit workers in Alapuzha, more than 50 per cent have outstanding loans from banks, co-operatives and private moneylenders.
Low wages, changing aspirations, higher education levels and jobs in other sectors have prompted youngsters to desert the industry. To top it all, shrinking coconut production led to the scarcity of husk and fibre, the main raw materials.
Barely a decade ago, Kerala accounted for 60 per cent of the world’s 2,50,000 tonne coir fibre production. The produce has thinned down to 60 tonne of white fibre and 25,500 tonne of brown fibre.
Now, many big players have modernised their factories and use jute and polyvinyl to tide over the crisis, while traditional workers are left to fend for themselves. The recession has added to the woes, driving down exports to Europe and the US.
“To avoid middlemen, we have floated societies to procure their produce. But the main problem is shortage of raw material and paucity of demand,” claimed state finance minister Thomas Issac, whose constituency Mararikulam is dotted with coir units.
Earlier, the government tried to increase the usage of coir products in all offices and educational institutions, but it failed to yield results.
Processing coir is a lengthy — and thus unremunerative —process. The husk is peeled and soaked in water for almost six months. The more it is soaked, the better the quality. Then the long-bristle fibre is separated from the shorter mattress fibre. The mattress fibre is then dried in the sun and packed into bales.
Dried bales are then taken to looms and woven.
It appears ironical that when the world is clamouring for biodegradable material, one of the most versatile samples would be in such distress. “The government and other bodies have to ensure proper supply of raw materials. Otherwise, traditional coir products would disappear soon,” explained K.P. Ashokan, local CPM leader and a coir factory worker.