From being the foundation of industrial conglomerates jute is today struggling to find takers

Around a century ago, the southern banks of Hooghly River was dotted by jute mills, which then formed the lifeline of the economy in undivided India. With private jetties and a steady business, jute laid the foundation of many an industrial conglomerate of the present day.

The good times have ebbed and the last thirty years has seen the industry on a downstream journey, and it now has to seek divine intervention hoping to turn the tide. The golden fibre has lost its sheen and its Midas touch.

Although the interests of 40 lakh raw jute farmers and 2.5 lakh workers employed directly by the industry are involved, the industry stayed on the sidelines till the Northbrook jute mill incident opened up its festering wounds.

The lynching of the CEO of a mill by irate workers on June 15 was less of militant trade unionism and more of manifestation of a deeper malaise afflicting the industry. A spate of lockouts followed, throwing out of employment nearly 20,000 as mill managements sought cover. Some of these units have since reopened but the industry fears similar reprisals if the situation does not improve.

From its pre-eminent position between the early 19th century to its middle, the jute industry has been sinking, with the crisis getting heightened in the 1980s since the advent of plastic packaging material, which started giving it strong competition. The main utilisation of the environment-friendly jute bags continues to be in packaging foodgrains and it is in this segment that it started feeling the heat of competition.

The Centre responded to the situation by enacting legislation – the Jute Packaging Materials Act (JPMA), 1987, which mandates packing of different commodities – foodgrains, sugar, fertiliser and cement in jute bags. However following dilutions in this Act, now only 80 per cent of foodgrains and 20 per cent of sugar is mandated to be packed in jute bags.

Even this protection cover for the industry went awry last year, when orders for only 23 lakh bales were placed during the kharif 2013-14 and rabi 2014-15 season for packaging foodgrains. instead of 35 lakh bales expected by the industry.

While this was attributed by the Union Textile Ministry (which administers the jute sector) to a mismatch between crop estimates and requirement for packaging materials, the jute industry’s woes got multiplied due to acute paucity of orders. This is the genesis of the Northbrook incident where irate workers had agitated against a management proposal to curb work hours.

Although militant trade unions had dealt body blows to the industry in the 70s and 80s, this incident could not be linked to trade unionism.

The industry too has to share part of the blame. Its failure to innovate and modernise and find cost-effective uses for the environment-friendly material is a common complaint against the industry. Also to blame are the less than scrupulous means employed by many mill managers in respect of treatment of its workers or import of jute goods when the home mills are starved of orders.

A section of the industry admitted recently that there was trust deficit vis-à-vis the industry and many of the 52 mills now operating in the State were cheating workers. Amid a flurry of action in the government, precipitated by the unfortunate NorthBrook incident, the Jute Commissioner’s office said that it will crack down on errant units.

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