On the chopping block

Once regarded as the world leader in the business, the Kallai timber industry is today a pale shadow of its past glorious self
On the chopping block

Suresh Babu does not remember his saw mill remaining closed, other than on holidays, for the past several decades.Since Monday however, the shutters have been down at Overseas Timbers in Kallai, as there have been no fresh orders.“The slump in the Kallai timber industry is hardly news to anyone.

But, the situation has never been this desperate.It appears that the industry’s closure is imminent,” says Suresh, who is also the secretary of the Timber Merchants’ Association.

Having been the epicentre of the world’s timber trade for decades, Kallai started losing its sheen in the latter half of the 1980s, with the stringent implementation of anti-deforestation laws making quality wood a scarcity.However, the import of timber from Malaysia and Burma kept both shores of the Kallai river abuzz with activities for another decade.

Thereafter, the shortage in foreign timber supply and the centralisation of timber logistics at Tuticorin and Mumbai ports, coupled with the ready availability of alternatives for wood in the construction industry, led to further decline.

From more than 200 saw mills and nearly 20,000 workers in the 35- km radius of Kallai river on both sides, the industry now remains a pale shadow of its past glory, with just a handful of saw mills and a few hundred employees battling for survival.

Over the last few years, majority of the mills have been supplying wooden planks to mega builders in Northern States for shuttering purpose.“The traders had been surviving thanks to the demand for silver oak planks from builders.

But in the past two months, we have had only a few fresh orders as they started procuring the material from other ports at a cheaper rate,” Suresh said.Despite the protracted crisis, neither the state government nor the timber merchants have been able to envisage a visionary project to transform the industry in tune with the technological advancement in the wood industry.

While the timber merchants cry foul over the inefficiency of the authorities, successive governments have hardly shown any interest in reviving the timber business.“The reason for the crisis is simply the scarcity of timber.But Kallai has never had a project to ensure sustained supply of wood.

Both the authorities as well as traders failed to promote social forestry methods,” says T K Kunhamu, Associate Professor at the College of Forestry, Kerala Agricultural University.“Besides, timber merchants hardly experimented with the modern innovations in wood processing and treatment.

While countries like Brazil and Malaysia emerged as leading players in the industry just by adopting various treatment methods to ensure durability of wood products, Kallai got sidelined,” he added.Of course, the authorities are also to blame for the sorry state of affairs.There was no attempt to either understand or preserve the special system by which the Kallai timber industry flourished for centuries.

“We used to have a unique system where small traders without separate space for storage used to store it at a single site and entrust a ‘mooppan’ with its security.The system worked well for centuries, before authorities effectively outlawed it.

They made the Forest Property Mark Registration compulsory for a trader to move timber from one place to another.The registration is only given to traders who have space to store timber, effectively putting the small traders out of business,” Kandakutty said.  

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