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Coir, cashew and the fortunes of parties

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Workers busy at a handloom unit in Palakkad.
Workers busy at a handloom unit in Palakkad.

P. Venugopal

The prevailing mood in the labour-intensive industries can make or mar prospects of the UDF and the LDF

Thiruvananthapuram

In at least 30 Assembly constituencies in Kerala, the mood in the labour-intensive traditional industries can make or mar the prospects of the Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) and the CPI(M)-led Left Democratic Front (LDF).

These industries employ close to 10 lakh workers, with coir, handlooms and cashew accounting for the bulk. They are all facing difficulties, though not for the same reasons. The coir and cashew industries present a paradox of prospering middlemen and exporters amidst grossly underpaid and underemployed workers. The handloom industry, on the other hand, is fighting for survival as powerloom textiles have taken over the market.

Women constitute over 75 per cent of the nearly four lakh people employed by the coir industry, concentrated in the coastal constituencies of the Alappuzha, Kollam and Thiruvananthapuram districts. This industry once had a strong network of cooperative societies, which bought yarn from the basic producers and manufactured mats and matting materials for sale to exporters. Of the 450-odd societies, only 21 are making profits, according to the latest Economic Review brought out by the State Planning Board.

According to Anathalavattom Anandan, CPI(M) State committee member and leader of the party's coir workers' trade union, though exports and price of coir products in the foreign market had gone up, the benefits were not reaching the primary producers and workers. The main reason was the Centre's decision four years ago to do away with a minimum export price for coir products.

This and the collapse of many cooperatives made it easy for middlemen and exporters to persuade the primary manufacturers to undersell their products, according to Mr. Anandan.

The cashew industry, which employs over 1 lakh workers, has in recent years completely shifted to the unorganised sector. The big factories in Kollam have all turned to a system called `kudi varappu' (cottage processing). Under this, raw cashewnuts are supplied to workers at their homes, and the processed nuts are taken back by the suppliers after the payment of a nominal processing fee. The middlemen and exporters thus do not need to pay any benefits to the workers.

Here too, the collapse of two public sector agencies, the Kerala State Cashew Development Corporation and the Cashew Workers Apex Cooperative Society, has added to the problem. The agencies, which employ nearly 15,000 workers, were able to provide employment for only 67 days to their workers in 2004-05, according to the Economic Review.

The handloom industry, centred in the Thiruvananthapuram and Kannur districts, employs nearly two lakh workers. Ninety-four per cent of the looms are in the cooperative sector. While the societies in Kannur district are functioning moderately well due to product diversification and a focus on exports, those in Thiruvananthapuram are in dire straits as they cling on to the manufacture of traditional items.

Rebates cut

Two agencies, Hantex and the Kerala State Handloom Development Corporation (Hanveev), do the procurement and marketing of handloom fabrics. While Hantex is the apex body of the handloom cooperative societies, Hanveev is a State public sector organisation. Much of the marketing is facilitated by festival rebates offered by the Government through the outlets of these agencies. Of late, the Government has drastically cut rebates, which has hit the market for handloom products.

Both within and outside the Assembly, the LDF alleged that the UDF Government's propensity to save on subsidies had made life difficult for the people in this sector. The UDF, on the other hand, said the Government had given more support in the past five years than ever before.

As they say, the proof of the pieis in the eating. What the people engaged in this sector experienced during the tenure of this Government will definitely influence their voting preferences.


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