Natural fibres have global appeal, India still chasing artificial dreams

India has been endowed with a variety of natural fibres, such as cotton jute, silk, wool, coir, banana, kenaf, sisal, […]

   

Sadhana Shukla

is vice-president, social research, impact and enterprise, at Ekgaon Strategic Consulting. She is a social policy researcher and keen observer of the fast evolving social-enterprise ecosystems. She has undertaken impact evaluation of social and hybrid businesses across sectors, with a specific focus on the use of information technology in bringing social change.


India has been endowed with a variety of natural fibres, such as cotton jute, silk, wool, coir, banana, kenaf, sisal, pineapple and palm to name a few. Traditionally India has been using them for all possible purposes and always been an exporter of raw material as well finished products of natural fibres. These fibres have multiple uses in textile, furnishing, packaging, construction and building industry as natural fibre composites.

While cotton production is thriving due to high demand, other variants of natural fibres have suffered from the general apathy. For example, jute, which was once one of the major export items does not figure in the list of exported items any more: India conceded an important advantage to Bangladesh, which is now one of the largest exporters of jute fibre in the world.

Successive governments in India have formulated policies on textiles, coir, jute and cotton, including a national policy titled National Fibre Policy 2010. Unfortunately all of them have failed see the bigger picture where natural fibre need to be treated as a class of its own. The lack of holistic policy on natural fibres has led to a severe neglect of numerous fibre varieties, which are ubiquitous in India and available at throwaway prices, and their potential use in numerous industries. It is ironical in the context of the government’s vision of increasing income of farmers, a target set by Prime Minister Narendra Modi as Mission 2022, and reducing carbon footprint of the country. A robust natural fibre policy can be in consonance with the creation of sustainable value chains.

A well-thought policy can have rewarding effects, like it did in the USA, which has become the fourth largest producer of cotton with the help of a suitable policy framework and built one of the largest cotton, textile and garment industries in the world. Its various programmes, such as the Cotton Ginning Cost Share Program; Cotton Transition Assistance Program, a scheme that was meant to provide limited support to producers with direct payments; subsidised insurance under the Stacked Income Protection Plan; Agriculture Risk Coverage; and, Price Loss Coverage, have helped establish cotton produce value chains. The USA example shows that a market-led policy support helps the sector grow.

National Fibre Policy 2010, which otherwise seems like a step in the right direction, is destined to fail in reviving the fate of natural fibre in the country as it attempts to address the issues of both natural and artificial fibres through a single policy framework. It may sound counter intuitive, but, in reality, the interests of these two fibre sectors cannot be aligned, and the policy has failed to establish a healthy balance between the two. For example, on the one hand, the policy suggests tax and duty exemptions for technology transfer, purchase of yarn, etc. of natural fibre; on the other hand, it aspires to emulate the international ratio of 60:40 of artificial to natural fibre in the textile industry instead of the current 41:59.

Although the international ratio currently leans towards artificial fibres, but with the ushering in of movements like sustainable fashion and reintroduction of linen, it is starting to reimagine and realign itself in favour of natural fibres. Unfortunately, India is yet to catch up with the global sustainable fashion brigade despite the fact that natural fibres are perfect for a humid tropical country like India and not to mention that cotton is one of the major cash crops for Indian farmers.

India’s textile policy also does not take into account the huge balance of payment deficit with China, which has flooded our markets with cheap Chinese silk and other types of synthetic yarns. A renewed focus on natural fibres can help India correct this imbalance.

Global trends suggest that natural fibre consumption is steadily growing. It is expected to reach $10.89 billion by 2024. However, a lack of awareness and policy framework has led to its low penetration in developing economies, like India.

From the figure above, one can see the diversified uses of natural fibre, which reflects the myopic view of the current policy on scope and uses of natural fibres. It remains fixated on the textile sector and completely ignores other possible avenues for utilising huge natural fibre resource of the country, such as the use of jute, sisal, pineapple, etc. in geotextiles, a sector which despite having a unique ability to solve problems of bad roads, erosion control and construction is dying a slow, neglected death due to visible government apathy.

Similarly, it fails to even mention $15 billion packaging industry, which is growing at an astounding rate of 15 per cent per annum in India. Consequently, the packaging industry in India is forced to import packaging material, which is mostly jute, form Bangladesh and hemp from the Philippines. With the rising global demand for sustainable value chains, Indian natural fibres have a good chance of making a cut in the national and international packaging industry. However, despite the sector having immense potential, India is unable to meet local demand and explore its global potential.

While artificial fibre industry provides limited avenues of employment, natural fibres can provide an answer for the current trend of jobless growth in the country. It is exactly this type of growth which is required in a country like ours. Since natural fibres are sourced from remote parts of the country, it provides gainful employment right at the local level in small towns and settlements, thereby reducing migration. Also, this sector has a unique potential to employ unskilled, semi-skilled and skilled workforce.

The National Fibre Policy does mention a few measures for the promotion of natural fibres, like exemption on customs and excise duties on import of plants and machinery; 50 per cent capital subsidy for entrepreneurs; promoting Other Natural Fibre-based industries; tax holiday for 10 years; and, interest subsidy on technology through schemes like the Technology Upgradation Fund Scheme. However, these measures come a little too late for a dying industry. There is a need for aggressive promotion for natural-fibre-based products in both national and international markets. At the same time, interest of the handloom weaver and the fibre cultivator should be kept in mind while designing a policy for the sector, which should address issues like adequate compensation to workers. There is a need for the creation of dedicated natural fibre resource centres in various regions of the country, which should dedicatedly work on technology promotion and upgradation for various producers and weavers of natural fibres. These centres should act as a promotion and certification body, which liaise with various stakeholders to further worker and producer interest along with an overall welfare of the natural fibre sector of their respective regions.