KOLLAM: The pencil slat manufacturing industry in Kollam had survived many challenges over the years to keep its numero uno status in the country. However, the challenge of finding skilled labour is now crippling the industry in the state. The district produces the largest number of slats used for making pencils in the country. At present, around 3,000 people are employed in as many as 150 slat units in Kollam, against the 5,000 employees in the early 2000.
Slat manufacturing requires skill in cutting softwood, and most of the people who are now working in the sector are from the rubber industry. Slat manufacturers continue to depend on manual labour as they find mechanisation cost prohibitive.
“Mechanisation of pencil slat manufacturing units costs over Rs 50 lakh, and as an industry which is persistently troubled by various issues, most manufacturers refrain from making such huge investments. In fact, most units will not survive for more than two years,” said C Sreejith, owner of Kailas slat manufacturing unit at Chathannoor.
Slats produced in the state have been recognised by pencil manufacturers in and outside the country. But, according to the slat manufacturers, such recognitions seldom translate into money. Shortage of raw materials and high prices are the perennial challenges being faced the industry. The cost of raw materials has increased with the ban on selection felling and clear felling of trees in the forest areas. The softwood industries were forced to source raw materials from private properties, mostly in the rural areas. Pencil slats are manufactured from the softwood of ‘Vatta’ or Macranga Peltata, a resinous tree.
The ‘Vatta’ wood is collected from Palakkad, Thrissur and from eastern part of Kollam district. The manufacturers get the softwood for Rs 275 per cubic metre. The trunk of the tree is cut into blocks of 3.75 to 5 feet.
They are then sliced into rectangular pieces of 185 mm length, 80 mm breadth, and 6 mm thickness and are sun dried. As many as 900 such pieces form a bundle which is then transported to various pencil manufacturers across the globe. A bundle fetch them Rs 1,400 and an average of 300-400 bundles are transported from each such units in Kollam. The pencil slats from Kollam are of high demand in places including, Pollachi, Jammu and Mumbai. Pencil slat consignments are also transported to pencil factories based in Delhi, Chennai, and Gujarat from Kollam.
According to the Kerala Slats Factories Association, the big manufacturers in other states often disrupt the price mechanism, which is affecting the small slat manufacturers.