Chandrababu, a small coir manufacturer in Alappuzha district of Kerala, committed suicide two months ago. He was the district secretary of the Small Scale Coir Manufacturers Association and had been in this field for the last 20 years. It was difficult to make both ends meet with his weekly earning of around Rs 1000. “He couldn’t bear any longer the burden of accumulated debt,” recalls Suresh, Chandrababu’s brother who is also a coir worker. “He ended it all by jumping in front of a train,” adds Suresh taking a pause at his loom.

A 100$ mat in the making

The number of small coir manufacturers finding themselves in similar predicaments is on the increase in Alapuzha and Cherthala, the cradles of coir industry in India. They are a rare breed, these small manufacturers. They are at once employers and labourers. They work along side their workers, arrange the supply of raw materials, collect orders, make sales, disburse weekly wages and pay bonus. Each of these apparently simple tasks has assumed gigantic proportions too hazardous for small manufacturers with meagre resources to handle. Is the traditional coir industry limping towards its demise?

“Yes” says Ajith an employee of the Coir Project, a wing of the Kerala government’s Industries Department set up for the revitalisation of the industry. “No” says Vijayakumar a new entrepreneur full of hope. Perhaps the truth is somewhere in between.

The availability of raw materials exclusive to that area and consequent mastery by the local people in the craft are two main factors in the evolution of a traditional industry. Kerala, especially the Alappey district had coconuts in abundance. There were innumerable ponds canals and back-waters in which the coconut husks could be retted. There was no lack of man power (or woman power as women were once the backbone of Coir industry), for manually beating the rutted husks and producing fibres, which then would be used for manufacturing coir yarn and other coir products. At least six large factories employing hundreds of workers (and hundreds of others indirectly) flourished in Alappuzha town alone till the Fifties of the last century. The coir fibre required by these factories was procured from the locality itself.

But as times changed, ponds were filled up and canals were blocked or their flow stagnated due to construction of roads and culverts in unscientific ways. Sufficient water sources were no longer available for retting the coconut husks. Growth in literacy and general awareness, instead of promoting industriousness and dignity of labour, alienated a large section of the traditional labourers from manual labour and anything that stinks (as the retting husks does). There is no justification in blaming them for nourishing a most human tendency towards better quality of life. But what is strange is that it happened at the cost of their livelihood. Neither the stalwarts in the industry or the numerous government agencies made any serious efforts to mechanise the production of fibre and streamline the collection of coconut husks – to prevent the impending doom. Instead, the situation was allowed to drift.

But the neighbouring state of Tamilnadu seized upon the opportunity. Entrepreneurs set up units for defibring coconut husks. Their process is simple, not very expensive and does not require retting of the husks. Coir factories, both large and small were their ready markets. As is usual, middlemen entered the fray and prices were artificially jacked up. One bundle of fibre, which costs around Rs 200 four years ago, now costs Rs 430.

None of the officials, entrepreneurs or trade union leaders this correspondent talked to could come out with a reasonable explanation for lack of progress in the small scale coir industry.
The small coir manufacturer can hardly afford this. He cannot reduce the Rs 10 he pays to his worker for weaving 1 sq meter of a coir mat. The export company to whom he sells his product does not increase the price even by a rupee. All these when millions of coconut husks are burnt as fuel or rot and become soil literally all around him. Even at 50 paise per husk (without value addition), the colossal amount that is being allowed to become ash and dust is mind-boggling. The production of coconuts in Kerala during 2001-2002 exceeded 6100 millions.

None of the officials, entrepreneurs or trade union leaders this correspondent talked to could come out with a reasonable explanation for not setting up of defibring units in the presence of an abundance of husks. A feeble argument was that the defibring units could cause environmental problems. The disposal of the accumulating pith is cited as the environmental hazard, but this can be addressed by using certain bacteria which converts the pith into bio fertiliser. It can also be compressed into compact blocks and marketed for horticultural needs.

In the meantime, small manufacturers collect orders for coir mats from companies who supplement their production by outsourcing a part of their export orders. But on their weekend visit to the company with their products, a bitter scenario invariably awaits them there. “If there are 50 mats, on an average 15 are rejected for not maintaining the quality norms,” says Sasidharan a one-time coir worker and social activist. The small manufacturer cannot afford to take the rejected ones back as he will be getting only a very nominal price for them in the domestic market. So he pleads and sometimes even bribes the people concerned and finally the company deigns to accept them as second quality at a lower price. “But he has to pay his workers at the stipulated rates for all the square meters that have been weaved, irrespective of whether they were accepted as first or second quality,” points out Sasidharan. It is widely alleged that these so called second quality products too are exported at the normal price.

Hand loomed coir soon to be doomed?

There is another angle. Standard wages have been fixed from time to time. But they are more often flouted than adhered to. Formerly when trade unions were strong, there could not be any going back on commitments. Today their power is only on paper. “If the worker demands more he is sacked and no one questions that. There will of course be protests; but they are only symbolic. As it is, the workers rarely get work for six days a week and who would want to forego even that?” asks Sasidharan.

And why is work not available through the week? Because of lack of orders. The big companies are all being fully mechanised and their production has increased tremendously. Consequently the frequency and quantity of orders outsourced by the companies to the smaller manufacturers has thinned out.

Thus it is a strange predicament where both the small manufacturers and the labourers are at the receiving end. The former heavily indebted and the latter grossly underemployed. The only ones who flourish through the ebb and flow of the industry are the middlemen and the large exporters. Exports have gone up almost three times during the last five years.

Alapuzha was not only the cradle of coir industry, but also that of trade union movement and communism. Strikes paralysing the entire industry take place every year. But they have certainly not improved the economic status of the ordinary worker. That the very first demand often put forth is the implementation of the terms of settlement of the previous strike is a telling commentary on the efficacy of these agitations. Trade unions could have played a vital and proactive role in the gradual and inevitable process of modernisation and adaptation to changing times. But farsighted has been lacking in the leadership.

It is not that some attempts were not made. But they were not adequate to counter the complexities of the issues involved. Many cooperative societies were formed and factories were set up under their auspices. But they soon deteriorated into the pattern of bureaucratically controlled state enterprises. Moreover they were not big enough to garner export orders and had to depend on the large business houses for out sourced orders. Modern Coir Society, a well-run firm was recently locked out for lack of adequate work orders.

Why then is Vijayakumar, the new entrepreneur so optimistic in the backdrop of a scenario that can at best be described as dismal? “There is no decline in the western world’s preference for quality coir products. Even if the demand abroad is to decline, the demand in India will continue. But I’m not going into it with the traditional handlooms. I am using power looms” he said. Power looms are semi automatic looms that reduce the physical work and increase the speed. The artistry of the mats produced may be less evident but they are sturdier. Export orders for the power loom mats are increasing in proportion to the hand woven ones. So Vijayakumar plans that he can double or treble the production employing lesser number of craftsmen and thus overcome the impact of increasing cost of fibre.

But a semi automatic power loom costs a minimum of three lakh rupees. And there ought to be minimum two such looms for the unit to be viable. So shifting to power looms cannot even be a distant dream for the traditional small manufacturer whose average investment is less than one lakh. While banks do extend credit for setting up power loom units, the collateral necessary is 150% of the credit amount. For two power looms, the minimum requirement is 6 lakhs, the collateral needed is (land and building) of 9 lakhs value. Few possess or can raise this sum. And more often than not, a small entrepreneurs is already indebted. Without additional funds, his decline and fall is very much in the horizon.

A final confirmation of this was presented by Narayanan, a coir worker in a large company for forty years. He started his own unit after retirement. After running the business for twelve years he was up to his neck in debt. Then an offer came his way. Will you weave mats in Jute for our company in Bengal? We will provide the jute yarn and buy back the mats. No, you don’t have to invest any money; instead we will pay you when you turn in the finished products. Narayanan jumped at the proposal. He only had to make minor adjustments in his looms.

He soon realised that the company in Bengal was paying him primarily for his labour and a little more. But he is content. “No risks for me” he says. Almost all of his neighbours have shifted to Jute and many more are to follow suit.

“In any case, we were bringing coir fibre from Tamilnadu. Now we are getting jute yarn from Bengal. What difference does it make to us”? Narayanan is perfectly right. It makes no difference to him at least in the first flush of a new business, the risks and pitfalls of which are as yet unknown. But it certainly marks a turning point for the traditional coir industry of Kerala. (Quest Features and Footage)