Kerala's nutty case

Coir & more

Coir is often referred to as the golden fibre. It is used to make a great variety of products. For centuries now, it has been used to make ropes, rudimentary baskets and mats, and even ship cables. India’s coir products are exported and appreciated around the world.

There is great interest in coir and other natural fibres across nations. The world over, people are becoming increasingly aware of the hazards of using synthetic substitutes to natural materials, and are hence gravitating towards eco-friendly and bio-degradable products. Coir fits these criteria. Buying coir products is a good way to keep a traditional handicraft alive.

My many visits to Kerala have impressed on me how important the coir industry is to this state. I learnt that this is Kerala’s largest cottage industry. Kerala also contributes the highest percentage of the coir products made in India and also the volume of exports from India. There are hundreds of small-scale producers in the state and the industry employs several lakh persons across different sectors involved in different stages of production.

The Kerala government even has a Department of Coir Development and has begun to hold annual coir fairs.

From staid and simple floor mats, the industry has evolved to create a wide range of products including lifestyle products in a variety of patterns. Mechanised production and computer-aided designing helps.

Among the range of coir products one finds in Kerala are door mats, floor mats, staircase mats or wall panelling, mattresses, baskets, especially hanging baskets (for real or artificial plants) and wall troughs, brushes, skipping ropes, birds nests (which can be used to house real birds outdoors or used indoors for bird figurines), coco peat, decorative trays, mulch mats, pots/containers, etc.

Alappuzha, Kollam, Kozhikode and Kochi are among the major centres for the coir industry in Kerala. If you have taken a backwaters cruise in Kerala, you will often see locals on the banks working on coir.

How does the rough husk around the coconut turn into that sturdy and smoothly woven floor mat, wall panelling, or even a decor item? The coconut fibre is taken off the coconut and spun into yarn, and next woven into a large variety of items. In the traditional method, the process is laborious. The husks of the coconut are peeled off or rather pulled off and tied into neat and large bundles, and immersed in water for a few months.

The fibre is then extracted from the retted or decomposed husk by removing them from the water and beating the husks with a wooden mallet. This is next spun into yarn on ratts or traditional spinning wheels.

Of late, the process has been mechanised in many places. These mechanised spinning companies spin evenly woven yarn. Some of them have a capacity of defibring thousands of husks a day. Coconut coir is graded according to colour and size, before it is put to use for a purpose.

However, only a trained eye can tell whether a finished product was made by hand-spinning or came from a factory. Kerala coir items are also reasonably priced and this, together with their durability, makes for great value for money.

Of course, there are a few problems in this industry. The hand-spinners in the unorganised sector feel threatened by mechanisation.

Also, Kerala’s neighbouring states are providing attractive incentives for coir-makers of the state to relocate. Given the militant trade-unionism in the state, some manufacturers are indeed shifting base to Tamil Nadu and a few to Karnataka.

However, there were others in Kerala who assured us that this was a temporary phenomenon and that coir continues to be the major cottage industry of the state, and that the government is taking steps to ensure the trade flourishes.

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