ALAPPUZHA: The golden fibre that spread Kerala’s fame far and wide, employing nearly five lakh people in the state and playing a pivotal role in developing its economy, seems to be 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 Kerala.
Reason: Militant trade unionism, high wages and government’s unfriendly policies.Though the government makes 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 base there. N C John and Sons, 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 big names in the process of shifting.
“In Tamil Nadu, the labour cost is very low. Here we’ve to pay `900, including allowances, to a worker per day. In Tamil Nadu, it is just `368 per day. The government there is very supportive and the process of getting a sanction is hassle-free,” said Travancore Coco Tuft MD V V Pavithran. “Here the first-day wage of an unskilled labourer is `840, which includes a minimum wage of `540 and allowances amounting to 60 per cent of it. Even in New Delhi, the average wage is only in the range of `250-350,” said an exporter.
In fact, the migration 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 that supplied long and evenly spun yarn, tailor-made for Kerala’s modern units. This spelt doom for the traditional coir workers in the state.
Shifting of the manufacturing sector, which contributes nearly `2,000 crore to Kerala’s exchequer, is expected to deliver a body blow to its frail economy. “Meteoric rise in land value is a major factor in deterring the entrepreneurs. The land value in Pollachi is `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,” said Vivek Venugopal, chairman, Federation of Indian Coir Exporters Associations, and managing director of William Goodacre and Sons (India) Pvt Ltd.
In fact, it was the 60-day-long strike in the coir sector in 2001-2002 that doomed the coir handloom industry in the state. Alappuzha was famed for 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 powerloom sector. This devastated 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.