ALAPPUZHA: The golden fibre which spread Kerala’s fame far and wide, employing nearly five lakh people in the state and playing a pivotal role in developing its economy, is losing its sheen.
Nearly three decades after another traditional sector, the cashew industry, migrated to Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh, the coir industry is also bidding adieu to the Kerala.Reason: Militant trade unionism, high wages and government’s unfriendly policies.Though the government has been making tall claims over the success of the recently- held Coir Kerala Fest, the signals emerging from the industry paint a different picture.Almost all big players in the industry have opened units in Tamil Nadu and are increasingly shifting their base to the neighbouring state.
N C John and Sons, a leading manufacturer of coir mats, has opened a huge facility for manufacturing tufted coir mats in Tamil Nadu while Travancore Mats and Mattings has started operations at Bhavani. A unit of the Travancore Coco Tuft will begin functioning in Tirunelveli next year. Kerala Balers has started a unit in Kanyakumari while the Aspinwall and Co Travancore Ltd has migrated to Pollachi.
D C Mills, Charankattu Coir Manufacturing Co, Maitra Home Decor and Techno Exports are some of the big names in the process of shifting. “In Tamil Nadu, the labour cost is very low. Here we’ve to pay Rs 900, including allowances, to a worker per day while in Tamil Nadu, it is just Rs 368 per day. The government there is very supportive and the process of getting an industry sanction is hassle-free,” said Travancore Coco Tuft MD V V Pavithran.
“Here the first-day wage of an unskilled labourer is Rs 840, which includes a minimum wage of Rs 540 and allowances amounting to 60 per cent of it. Even in New Delhi, the average wage is only in the range of Rs 250-350,” said an exporter.
In fact, the migration process had started decades ago, with the shifting of defibring units. Earlier, the fibre was extracted from the husk after retting it in lakes for nearly 10 months. The retted husk was beaten with wooden mallets to extract the fibre. It was then spun into yarn on ratts, traditional spinning wheels.With the mechanisation of the coir sector, big units with a capacity of defibring 8,000 husks a day sprang up at Pollachi. The presence of big coconut groves made procurement of large quantity of husks easy in that state, whereas husk collection was an arduous task in Kerala with small-land holdings and scattered coconut groves.
Later, Tamil Nadu started mechanised spinning companies which supplied long and evenly spun yarn, tailor-made for Kerala’s modern units. This spelt doom for the traditional coir workers in the state.
The shifting of the manufacturing sector, which contributes nearly Rs 2,000 crore to the Kerala’s exchequer, is expected to deliver a body blow to its frail economy. “It’s not surprising. The meteoric rise in land value is a major factor scaring away the entrepreneurs. The land value in Pollachi is Rs 16 lakh per acre while it runs to crores in Kerala. Cheap labour is another reason. “Though the labour charge here is three times that of Tamil Nadu, the productivity is low. We had to abandon the move to increase productivity due to stiff resistance. The competition is tough and we’ve to increase proactivity to survive,” said Federation of Indian Coir Exporters Associations (FICEA) Chairman Vivek Venugopal, who is also the managing director of William Goodacre and Sons (India) Pvt Ltd.
“The initiative of Coir Minister T M Thomas Isaac to bail out the industry is commendable. It’s providing employment to around 30,000 workers in the state and the government has the responsibility to protect the livelihood of the poor. Till now, we used to procure the yarn and mattings from the cooperative societies. But now the government has decided to provide PVC tufting machines to the societies which will make them our competitors. We’re investing huge amounts for setting up factories and the cooperative societies are setting up the same utility using government subsidy.
This is an unhealthy situation. The government should ensure a level playing field,” he said.Praising Isaac for his efforts to promote production of geotextiles, Vivek said the move would be beneficial to hand spinners in the unorganised sector. The minister knows the problems plaguing the industry. The government should initiate steps to ensure a conducive environment and stop the coir industry from migrating to neighbouring states,” he said.
“Peace of mind is a big factor. In Tamil Nadu, the government and workers welcome us with open hands whereas in Kerala we’re demonised by the trade unions. The workers raise unreasonable demands and the trade union leaders are forced to support them. They are also under pressure as the workers will desert the union if they refuse to support a demand,” said an exporter in Alappuzha.
An owner of a now-defunct coir unit in Alappuzha said entrepreneurs have always been portrayed as exploiters.
“It is a question of attitude. We’ve been taught that entrepreneurs are exploiters and the workers have to stage tools-down strike to protect their rights. Nobody thinks of the adverse impact of a strike. Unfortunately, our politicos are after populism and, in the process, we’ve forgotten the goal named prosperity.”Gaurikutty, who works at a manual coir-spinning unit at Neeravil, Kollam, said big pay might be true in the organsed sector, but she and several others in the unorganised sector were getting only Rs 145-190 per day.
“We can’t make both ends meet with the money. We’ve to depend on other jobs like those offered under rural employent guarantee scheme,” said Gaurikutty.
In fact, it was the 60-day-long strike in the coir sector in 2001-2002 which doomed the coir handloom industry in the state. Alappuzha was famed for the coir and jute mattings industry at that time. Shipments were blocked due to the strike and multinationals like Walmart and Ikea, who used to purchase handloom coir mattings, shifted to the power-loom sector. This devastated the handloom coir sector in Kerala.
The mechanised coir sector faced a similar crisis in 2009-10. The industry witnessed three strikes within the span of 18 months and each one lasted three to four weeks. The manufacturers were forced to defer bulk shipments which invited the ire of retailing giants like Walmart and Home Decor.
Exports and volume
Though there has been a substantial growth in export of coir products from Kerala, there is a drop in the actual quantity of coir exported. The quantity of coir used in coir products has decreased as 60 per cent of the material used in PVC tufted coir mat and rubberised coir mat are non-coir products.