Golden Revolution Society

The versatile jute could be the fibre of the future, but the industry needs reforms

Harvested and dried, silken strands of jute fibre being transported to factories.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

As the last rays of the sun bathed the countryside, I found myself resting on a wooden bench outside a tiny roadside tea stall. A farmer, in a colourful checked dhoti, was busy knotting up bundles of raw jute that he had spread out to dry in the sun. The guttural squeals from a flock of cormorants perched on the edge of a pond rang through the cool damp air.

It was mid-August and the dark monsoon clouds had shielded me during my week-long exploration of Betai, a village bordering Bangladesh. Nestled along the banks of the Jalangi River in West Bengal, Betai was deep in its jute harvest season.

Watch | India's 150-year-old jute industry

A group of old men walked into the shack and approached me inquisitively. I told them I was here to attend a friend’s wedding, but overstaying to witness the jute harvest. They chuckled when I confessed that until a few days ago, I had thought jute grew on trees, hanging in long flowing streams, which were plucked, combed, and braided into ropes.

After nearly a week of exploration, I was beginning to understand the importance of this magical grass. It’s a regenerative gold mine, I discovered. “Paat ki vajaha se hi Bangladesh bana” (Jute is the primary reason behind the creation of Bangladesh), one man told me. ‘East and West Pakistan split up due to jute?’ I probed inquisitively. “Haan!“ he asserted emphatically, slapping the table.

After harvesting, the stalks are submerged in water for days to soften the fibrous outer layer, which is then stripped from the stalk.

After harvesting, the stalks are submerged in water for days to soften the fibrous outer layer, which is then stripped from the stalk.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

Young leaves

The growing chirps of crickets and frogs were my cue to head back. The golden-brown jute fibre that had lined the roads all day had been taken in for the night. Children were playing on the roads and women huddled together in the courtyards, rolling and bundling beedis for sale.

There was a surprise waiting for me back home. My friend’s mother had cooked jute-leaf saag. She had especially ordered the tender young leaves of the plant for me, she said. The leaves turn bitter as they grow bigger. Serving a giant scoop on my plate, she announced that it is very good for health, especially for the eyes and for fertility. And in the same breath, she suggested that I get married soon.

 

In the soft morning light, farmers headed to their fields on bicycles. With a sickle strapped to the carrier and a lunch bag dangling from the handlebars, they pedalled past in single file, with conical bamboo hats resting lightly on their heads.

The fields stretched out till the horizon, the lush green jute grass swaying in the wind. Farmers were working in engrossed silence. Some jute fields had long been harvested and now stood flooded with rice saplings; others still had a day or two before harvest.

The fibres are left to sun-dry before being sold to factories.

The fibres are left to sun-dry before being sold to factories.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

Tightrope walking on the narrow bunds, I met the farmers. Neelkanth spoke fluent Hindi, and he told me there was money to be made in jute if you did it right. He used to lease his half-acre land to other farmers, fetching him next to nothing. “Now that I personally look after my land, the yield has shot up,” he said, pointing to the bundles of jute stacked up on the edge of his field.

Rotting gold

With a grin he explained that jute is the only crop where earnings begin to trickle in way before the final harvest. “We sell the leaves in the vegetable market for nearly two months of the four-month crop cycle,” said Neelkanth.

The tall, hardy grass shoots up to 2.5 metres and has several uses. The leaves are cooked, the outer layer of the stem produces the fibre, the inner woody stem is used to manufacture paper, and the roots, which are left in the ground after harvest, improve the yield of subsequent crops, primarily rice.

Not only does this wonder crop bring home higher returns compared to most cash and food crops, it is a massive winner on the sustainability front too.

Not only does this wonder crop bring home higher returns compared to most cash and food crops, it is a massive winner on the sustainability front too.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

The jute seeds are planted in April-May and harvested in July-August. Compared to rice, which is also raised on the same field, jute requires very little water and fertiliser, is largely pest-resistant, and its rapid growth spurt ensures that weeds don’t stand a chance. To top it all, the monetary returns on jute are twice that of the resource-leeching paddy.

But farming jute used to be much easier, said Neelkanth with a sigh. The Jalangi River, which flows nearby, used to flood the fields when he was a child, but not any more. Back then, they would harvest the jute and submerge the bundled stalks in the field itself. The fibrous outer layer would soften some 20 days later. He and his father would then strip the jute fibre from the stalk. But now he has to carry the entire harvest to a fish pond nearby for soaking.

At the fish pond, farmers were busy stripping fibre from stalk. Half a dozen men, in waist-high water, were tying together jute stalks to form a giant floating raft. Once the raft is ready, banana leaves are placed along the entire breadth. Then, mud from the pond bed is scooped out and dumped on the banana leaves until the entire raft is submerged in water. The harvest is left to rot for three weeks until the fibrous outer layer loosens from the woody stalk and can be peeled off.

The tall, hardy jute grass shoots up to 2.5 metres.

The tall, hardy jute grass shoots up to 2.5 metres.   | Photo Credit: Himmat Rana

At the other end of the pond, an old man in deep meditative focus was stripping a handful of stalks. His bundles had been rotting for over 20 days. He pulled off the fibre cleanly along the entire length. He then rinsed and knotted the light brown fibre and tossed it on the bank, where a pile was beginning to grow. Just a few days of sun and both the jute fibre and the woody stalks would be ready to sell to factories.

An acre of land produces approximately nine quintals of fibre. While the fibre is sold for ₹3,500-4,000 per quintal, the woody stalk and the leaves fetch approximately ₹9,000. The earning per acre is approximately ₹35,000-40,000.

No imagination

Not only does this wonder crop bring home higher returns compared to most cash and food crops, it is a massive winner on the sustainability front too. Cotton, the most abundant natural fibre in the world, followed by jute in second position, requires twice the amount of land and time, and over five times the amount of water and huge amounts of chemicals.

Jute, with its high tensile strength, acoustic and thermal insulation, breathability, low extensibility, ease of blending with both synthetic and natural fibres, and antistatic properties, can be harnessed for countless industrial and domestic applications: for insulation (replacing glass wool), geotextiles, activated carbon powder, wall coverings, flooring, garments, rugs, ropes, gunny bags, handicrafts, curtains, carpet backings, paper, sandals, carry bags, and furniture.

India is the world’s biggest producer of jute, followed by Bangladesh. The possibilities of this carbon-neutral crop are limited only by imagination, but its potential still goes untapped.

A ‘Golden Fibre Revolution’ has long been called for by various committees, but the industry is in dire need of basic reforms. Two major problems plague the industry: obsolete processing technology, and the lack of product diversification that dares not tread beyond handicraft and packaging. It’s high time the government pushed jute out of the emporium and into every household through a much wider range of products, thus giving it back its place stolen by polluting synthetic fibres. For India, jute could indeed be the fabric of the future and the solution to two big problems: farmer distress and pollution.

The travel writer and photographer is on a mission to explore and share India.

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Printable version | Jan 28, 2021 6:23:41 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/society/the-versatile-jute-could-be-the-fibre-of-the-future-but-the-industry-needs-reforms/article33191655.ece

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