Where there once was sandal

HISTORY


The sandal oil factory that was started in Mysore in 1917, is now reduced to 40 to 50 employees,  and functions for three months a year.  Photos:  ANURAG BASAVARAJ

The Government Sandal Oil Factory of Mysore was once one of the most prestigious factories in the erstwhile Mysore state. The availability of sandalwood in abundance in the state had then prompted Mysore's rulers to start the factory.

Till a few years ago, the factory had no problems when it came to procuring sandalwood, the raw material for oil extraction. Today, though, the factory, being managed by Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited, a Government of Karnataka undertaking, is struggling to procure sandalwood.

The factory which once had a workforce of more than 400 employees working round the clock to produce sandal oil, now barely has 40-50 people working, and only for three to four months a year.

People living in the vicinity of the factory once enjoyed the aroma of sandal oil wafting across the sprawling 56-acre premises on Mysore-Manandawadi Road in Mysore. The building, constructed 92 years ago, speaks volumes about its past glory. The meter gauge railway track inside the factory premises is a reflection of the quantity of sandalwood stock that arrived in the factory those days.

Sir MV's brainchild

The factory, which was started in 1916 in Bangalore, was subsequently shifted to Mysore in 1917. The then Dewan of Mysore Sir M Visvesvaraya took personal interest in setting up the factory in Mysore with a view of promoting trade and commerce.

Over the years, the forest cover started receding, and this had an impact on sandalwood as well.

Last year, the state government relaxed the guidelines and allowed Karnataka Soaps and Detergents Limited and Karnataka State Handicrafts Development Corporation to procure sandalwood from private firms. Hitherto, the government had the right over sandalwood grown on private lands and farm houses too. At that time, the government used to procure sandalwood on behalf of those organisations and supply it periodically.

Last July, the government also encouraged people to grow sandalwood in their fields and farm houses.

Sandalwood requirement

The factory needs around 500 metric tonnes of sandalwood every year. But, the availability is hardly 50 metric tonnes. The factory extracts oil from sandalwood and uses by-products to manufacture incense sticks. The cost of five grams of sandal oil is around Rs 1,200 and is available in select outlets.

The purity and medicinal value of the oil makes it sought-after. The sandal soap being manufactured by KSDL is also sought-after in Karnataka, Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh.

The shortage of sandalwood in the state has forced KSDL to buy from open auctions put up by the forest department of neighbouring Tamil Nadu, since the year 2000. The cost of one metric ton of sandalwood which was Rs 1.42 lakh, has now touched a whopping Rs 54 lakh per metric ton.

Meanwhile, the government issued another notification permitting direct purchase of sandalwood from private parties through negotiation.

This has enabled KSDL to buy sandalwood from private sources. The KSDL now purchases sandalwood at Rs 20 lakh per ton, much lesser when compared to the price of Tamil Nadu forest department's open auctioning.

A few decades ago, the government had started another plan of sandal oil extraction in Shimoga but it was closed nearly ten years ago. The reason for closing the factory was again non-availability of sandalwood.

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