The outcry and ban against plastic bags and single-use plastic packaging holds potential for the jute sector. But the more than 100-year-old sector, supporting five million families at the farm and the industry-level, may not be in a position to benefit from this opportunity, right away
The availability of quality raw jute and shrinking acreage on the one-hand and the failure of most jute mills to modernise has left the sector dependent on government-support like packaging reservations. Only a section of the industry has diversified into non-packaging segments.
A recent initiative called ‘The Jute Foundation’ (TJF) is trying to address many issues pertaining to the environment-friendly product. It is trying to engage all stakeholders –farmers, workers, mills, research organisations and consumers.
Pointing out that while the convenience of a plastic carry bag is “difficult to beat,” Siddharth Singh, chairman, TJF said an initiative is being introduced for the industry to work jointly with research and development agencies like IJIRA (Indian Jute Industries’ Research Association) and others to develop thin and slim jute shopping bags “that can be rolled into a ladies handbag.” The issue also figured at a recent meeting of the Union Textiles Ministry.
However, the industry’s ability to rise to this challenge hinges on the quality of the golden fibre. West Bengal is India’s single largest raw jute cultivator producing almost 75 % of the crop in Nadia, Dinajpur, Murshidabad and North 24 Parganas districts.
But acreage had stagnated amid low productivity and falling prices of the cash crop. The 2017-18 crop is estimated at about 76 lakh bales says the Union Textile Ministry which has noted a 9.5 % drop in the acreage. The Ministry also said that with raw jute prices remaining below the support price in 2017-18, area-under-cultivation may stagnate in 2018-19.
Primitive, labour-intensive cultivation methods and retting (drenching raw jute in water to extract the fibre) — a crucial determinant in raw jute quality — creates problems. The I-CARE programme unveiled by the National Jute Board and the Jute Corporation of India seeks to address this issue by introducing a pilot project on retting technologies aimed at increasing farmers’ returns.