Vasudevan K., 65, was born into a family of coir workers at Aryad, near Alappuzha. His first tryst with the golden fibre at a professional level came when he joined a chaapra (coir products manufacturing unit) as a 12-year-old. He made a steady rise and set up his own production unit attached to his house before he turned 25. Coir doormats and mattings made on handlooms at his unit reached far and wide. His production unit was among the numerous such initiatives which spread the fame of Kerala’s coir handloom products overseas. After running a profitable business for several years, his fortunes, however, started to nosedive and the unit was wound up five years ago due to “financial problems”.
“When I started, it was the heyday of the coir sector. Almost all households here had their own units making doormats, floormats, mattings and so on, mainly for export to Europe and the U.S. among other places. But after enjoying a golden period, the traditional handloom sector started to lose its sheen. The demand for our products waned and orders declined. I think, I have done the right thing by closing down the unit as the sector is going south day by day,” says Mr. Vasudevan, referring to the recent strike by small-scale coir factory owners in Alappuzha and Ambalappuzha taluks, the nerve centre of Kerala’s coir industry, demanding fresh orders for their products to sustain the business. He has since turned to tapioca cultivation to make a living.
During the good old days, more than 50 coir units dotted Ward 6 of Aryad grama panchayat. Now less than 15 remain with a number of them on the verge of closure.
With the strike over, Sunny C. who is in running a small manufacturing unit close to his home is clearing cobwebs in the dilapidated shed and prepping up the 14 heavy structured wooden looms there after they remained dormant for more than two weeks.
Things far from rosy
“We went on strike as a last resort. All our products have piled up with no takers after exporters stopped placing orders. We get orders for traditional coir products from exporters through the Kerala State Coir Corporation, the agency for implementation of the Purchase Price Stabilisation Scheme. Instead of notifying orders with the corporation, exporters started procuring products from units of their choice with the help of intermediaries. This has left many small-scale units gasping for survival,” says Mr. Sunny, pointing to a huge bundle of piled-up fibre mats at the rear end of the shed.
Though the exporters have now promised to buy products through the corporation, things are far from rosy for the coir industry, especially in the traditional sector. According to government data, more than Rs1,400 crore was allotted between 2016-17 and 2021-22 for the coir sector through budgetary allocations and funds sanctioned through various agencies. Despite pumping in money, enhancing mechanisation and implementing various schemes to revamp the coir industry which employs around two lakh people in the State, the reality is that it remains in tatters. While almost all big players in the industry have either shifted or plan to move their base to Tamil Nadu, the small-scale units and cooperative societies that have no other choice are finding the going tough.
Even the units and societies that did not take part in the strike and remained operational hardly portray a picture of hope. Tonnes of export quality coir geotextiles are piled up at the godown of the Muhamma Coir Mats and Mattings Society. Nazar K., president of the society, says nowadays they hardly operate the entire 30 looms at the factory due to a lack of demand for products and shortage of workforce. “We have never seen a crisis of this magnitude gripping the coir sector,” he says. Apart from coir products, the society is also making jute-based products, albeit on a small-scale to sustain.
According to industry people and experts, with the advent of PVC tufted mats, the demand for traditional handloom mats and mattings in the overseas market is on the decline. In 2020-21, the export of coir and coir products from India touched an all-time high of 11,63,213 tonnes valued at Rs3,778.98 crore. Despite the record fete, the share of traditional coir products, mostly made in Kerala, was a meagre 3% in quantity and 10% in value. The lion’s share of the export forms non-traditional products, particularly PVC-tufted mats mostly produced in Kerala and Tamil Nadu and bulk quantities of coir pith and fibre produced in Tamil Nadu.
Tufted mats alone constituted 7% in quantity and 21.4% in terms of value during the period. There are around 60 societies and some 8,000 small-scale units in the outskirts of Alappuzha and Cherthala towns engaged in the production of coir door mats and mattings on handlooms. More than 25,000 workers in Cherthala and Ambalapuzha taluks are fully dependent on the handloom sector of the coir industry. A lack of demand for traditional products in the export market is proving to be the death knell for these units and workers.
“Issues in the coir sector are perennial in nature,” says M. Kumaraswamy Pillai, Director (Marketing) (retired), Coir Board. “From wage-related problems to shortage of raw materials, it is time for some drastic measures if we are to regain its lost charm. Kerala once held a virtual monopoly in the export of coir and coir products. But no more. The momentum is now shifting towards Tamil Nadu, where the cost of production is less, largely due to mechanisation. Though Kerala too initiated measures to introduce mechanisation in the sector, it has not yet reached anywhere near the level in Tamil Nadu.
“While there is a quantum jump in the export of coir fibre, coir pith and PVC-tufted mats from Tamil Nadu, the overseas market for our own traditional products made on handlooms is shrinking. We are even dependent on the neighbouring State for raw materials like coir fibre and coir yarn to meet our demands,” Mr. Pillai says.
According to the Federation of Indian Coir Exporters’ Associations (FICEA), a considerable increase in ocean freight rates has impacted coir exports negatively. “When compared to last year, coir exports have declined in the current fiscal. Further, our competitor exporters in Tamil Nadu are offering machine-made products cheap in the global markets, which is hitting the traditional handloom sector hard. They are outcompeting us banking on the abundant availability of raw materials -- fibre, coir yarn, etc., and cheaper labour there,” says Sajan B. Nair, secretary general, FICEA.
Industries and Coir Minister P. Rajeeve, who held conciliatory talks to end the small-scale owners’ strike last week, informed the media that an expert committee would be constituted to study issues plaguing the sector. He said steps would be taken to market products more domestically. Producers, employees and exporters should all work with the goal of producing quality products, Mr. Rajeeve said.
Kerala’s association with coir dates back to the 19th Century. The first coir factory Darragh Smail & Co. was established by Irish-born American James Darragh in association with Henry Smail at Alappuzha in 1859. It produced coir mats and mattings in an industrial scale for the first time in India. Following this, 25 major coir factories sprang up in and around Alappuzha town soon.
As the country inched towards independence, the Europeans returned to their homeland leaving the coir units to the Indian counterparts. They retrenched the workers engaged by the Europeans by paying the legitimate retrenchment benefits in the form of looms and equipment. While the majority of the workers accepted the looms and equipment and established coir units attached to their houses, a few of the workers of the European firms formed coir mats and mattings manufacturing cooperative societies. The Travancore Coir Factory Workers Union, first labour body in India, was formed in the sector in 1938.
Plight of workers
The sector’s rich history and global fame, however, failed to bring meaningful changes in the lives of tens of thousands of workers, the majority of them hail from the lowest strata of society. They continue to earn meagre wages and hardly get regular work.
Anitha, 52, with a sack full of coconut fibres tucked around her waist attaches some of the feathery threads onto a small spindle of an electronic ratt. She then walks back, spinning strands of ropes in quick time. Working the entire day, she earns Rs. 400. “This is the work I love most, but unfortunately the returns are paltry. I am no more a full-time coir worker as I also use to go for MGNREGS [Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Scheme] works to make a living,” says Ms. Anitha, who works in a coir cooperative society in Muhamma.
A majority of the workforce in the industry, especially those involved in fibre extraction and coir spinning, are women. With the industry no more offering regular work and decent wages, many are looking for pastures new.
Jyothishmathi, 58, has been working in the coir industry for the past 40 years. At the New Model Coir Mats and Mattings Cooperative Society in Alappuzha, she puts coils of coir on a spool with ease. She earns between Rs. 600 and Rs700 per day, but the issue is that there is no regular work. “Getting three days of work a week is a bonanza nowadays. There used to be around 200 people working in tandem here. That number has now dwindled to 50. Our future remains uncertain,” she says.
After the small-scale owners, now is the turn of coir workers to launch protests demanding an increase in wages. Employees under the aegis of various trade unions will organise a token strike on June 21 raising their demands. “Last time the wages in the spinning sector got raised was 13 years ago. In factories (coir products manufacturing units) last wage hike came four years ago. The token strike will be followed by an indefinite stir if workers’ demands are not met,” says P.V. Sathyanesan, general secretary, Kerala State Coir Thozhilali Federation (AITUC).
The FICEA has called to rationalise wages in the coir sector in tune with the other traditional industries in the State. “The unscientific linkage of DA with the basic and the devaluation benefits being given since then has a multiplying effect on the wages (Rs.3.03 of the basic wage now becomes Rs.733 and CTC of Rs.1,164 for an unskilled daily paid worker). Our long-standing demand to rationalise this in tune with the other traditional industries of Kerala without any reduction in the current wages has not been addressed till now. This in comparison with a CTC of about Rs.480 in Tamil Nadu is forcing the Kerala-based exporters to establish more factories across the border,” says Mr. Nair of FICEA.
The decline is evident as the number of people taking up employment in the traditional sector has dwindled over the years. At Mr. Sunny’s coir unit at Aryad, the youngest worker is 57 years old. “I have 14 workers in my unit. They are aged between 57 and 70. It is not that we are reluctant to recruit youngsters. There is hardly any youngster showing an interest in joining us. Given the tumult the sector is going through, it is very unlikely my children will join me and try to create a career for themselves in the coir sector. The same goes for others. The youngsters are looking at more lucrative and promising sectors. Even if the sector survives in the long term, the next biggest problem will be the shortage of workers,” Mr. Sunny says.
While manufacturing units and societies are demanding more and more product orders along with the availability of raw materials, the spinning sector is urging the government to implement an efficient system for continuous procurement of husk and ensure the availability of coir fibre at reasonable rates. Amidst the ongoing crisis, the industry people and experts have called for thrust on innovation and diversification along with concerted efforts to promote traditional coir products in the domestic and international markets to prop up the sector.