Jute: The Golden Fibre

in Overview
Published on: 13 February 2017

Biswajit Mukherjee

Biswajit Mukherjee is Secretary, Legal Aid Centre of Social Organisations on Environment, Chandanagore.


The Mughal chronicle Ain-i-Akbari (1590) mentions that people of rural India wore clothes made from white jute threads. Clothes used to be made from hand-spun fabric woven of such threads. Indians, especially Bengalis, have been using jute threads and other light-spun fabric thread in their daily activities. The Middle East and many African countries used a special kind of jute leaf called 'tosha' for medicinal purposes. Egypt, Jordan and Syria uses jute as an ingredient in drinking juice. The South Pacific region, Bangladesh and the Gangetic planes of India use jute for fabric making.


Jute threads are used in many ways. Jute started being used in the fabric industry during the industrial revolution. Processed jute is used for making many jute products till today. The main advantage of jute is that it is not only produces many products but can also be assimilated with other kinds of thread and various other fibres. Jute is also a very good insulator. It can hold average moisture and is a good conductor of heat. Commercially jute fibre is used mostly in making packets, because its production per hectare is greater, and it is easily used in making modern agro-based jute textiles, for example bags, cloth coverings, ropes, goods packets, carpets, quilts, linoleum, processed ropes etc. It is also used as an alternative in making boards and paper. Jute is an extremely prized product of Bengal. It accounts for the income of 40 lakh families if we speak of jute cultivation, and of more than 2.5 lakh families in the jute industry, while more are associated with jute handicrafts and cottage industry. Jute has a significant impact on West Bengal’s economy, daily life, culture and politics given its association with peasants and labour revolutions.




The jute industry was one of the most prominent industries in undivided Bengal. Though jute was available in entire Southeast Asia, the use of jute products was more widespread in undivided Bengal. The main reason for the growth of jute cultivation and its production is that Bengal is a riverine state, which is congenial for jute cultivation. That is why the British East India Company started jute cultivation commercially and used jute-woven bags to distribute food grains all over the world. As mentioned, jute is one of the prized industries of Bengal. For several decades it created a special socio-economic environment, which still prevails. The economy rests on the growth of the jute industry, which is also reflected in the culture of Bengal.



Partition Fallout

In British India, jute was primarily cultivated in East Bengal (present day Bangladesh), whereas the jute mills were located in West Bengal (now the state of West Bengal in India), near the bank of river Ganga. An annual average of 80 lakh bel of raw jute is produced. Jute is cultivated in the districts of Murshidabad, Nadia, North 24 Parganas, Malda, Jalpaiguri, South Dinajpur, Coochbehar, Darjeeling and Howrah.


Jute and jute diversified products are well known for earning foreign exchange. After Partition, rapid jute cultivation started in West Bengal which ushered in a paradigm shift in the cultivation cycle of West Bengal. The state and central government started encouraging and incentivizing farmers for jute cultivation. In this context, the Jute Corporation of India (JCI) was formed to make jute cultivation and jute industry more innovative and to earn foreign exchange by exporting jute products.


It is recognized all over the world that jute and allied fibres are bio-degradable and environment friendly. It is regarded as one of the pillars of the national economy. There are 83 jute mills in India, among these, West Bengal has 68 mills of which 59 are actively functioning at present. Andhra Pradesh has seven mills, Bihar has three mills, Uttar Pradesh has three mills, Assam has two mills, Orissa has one mill, Chattisgarh has two mills and Tripura has one mill.


The total production of these 83 jute mills is 20,50,000 tonnes but only 240,000 tonnes are used for domestic consumption. Every year on average 180,000 tonnes of jute are exported in various forms. Nearly 17 lakhs tonnes are used to package food grains and sugar in the form of jute agro textile (gunny bags) as per the norm of Jute Packaging Materials Act 1987.  It may be stated that the parliamentary standing committee has unanimously passed a note that in the year 1987 'the Jute Packaging Materials (compulsory use in packaging commodities) Act 1987'—should not be diluted and should be implemented fully.


The note forwarded by the 16th Lok Sabha standing committee stated: 'The committee appreciates that a number of measures are being taken to redress the problem of the jute industry workers and jute growers. In view of the fact that jute is one of the important foreign exchange earners and all over the world only India and Bangladesh are producing jute, the committee impresses upon the ministry the need to continue according greater attention to this sector so as to effectively safeguard the interest of the jute workers and growers and promote the jute industry in a big way and not to dilute the provision of reservation as contained in "The Jute packaging Materials Compulsory Use In Packaging Commodities Act 1987"'.


According to the proceses of globalization and the growth of private capital and private entrepreneurship, market dynamics have changed drastically in India after 1991. It has been reflected in the distribution of food grains also. Jute bags are slowly being replaced by plastic bags which cost less, though those are non-biodegradable and carcinogenic in nature.


The strategy is to replace 25 kg size of small jute gunny bags meant for distribution of food grains, potato and sugar by plastic bags. Nowadays 25 kg small jute bag are not being produced and plastic bags, owing to their cost- effective model, have capitalized the entire packaging industry. The fallout of this is that jute industry is standing in the face of unhealthy competition where eco-sustainability is neglected.


The irony stands out that in spite of the closure of jute mills and mass laying off of jute workers, the overall production of jute has not decreased. This highlights the stark socio-economic reality of the jute industry in India. In the wake of greenhouse emission and the bar on using fossil fuels to reduce carbon footprint, the prospect of jute and allied fibres in India and abroad is immense. Also, we should know that the cost of jute bags is lower than plastic bags because jute bags can be repaired or recycled for use multiple times, whereas plastic bags are non repairable and non-environment friendly.



Migrant Labourers

In British India, many farmers fled the feudal-imperialist rule of the zamindars and took refuge in the newly formed jute industry. There are several references to the above phenomenon in Indian literature. Versatile writer Sarat Chandra Chattopadhay in his short story 'Mahesh' mentioned that after losing everything the protagonist Gafoor took refuge in a jute mill at Uluberia for a monthly wage of only five rupees. Such events were witnessed in many parts of India. From Bihar, Uttar Pradesh, Orissa and even in southern India lakhs of farmers migrated to jute industrial areas to become wage labourers.


At present, the problem of jute workers is even more serious and complex. The scenario is the same for jute planters. The main reason is the unprofessionalism of the management and unholy nexus of the petroleum, cottonnesand political lobby. There is acute shortage of water for the retting process also.



Carbon Credits of Jute Cultivation

After Kyoto Protocol was signed, the usage of fossil fuel in industries was reduced and substituted by renewable resources. New research has shown that the lignocellulosic fibre of a plant can be used as a fuel. In only 120 days, jute produces nearly 2.5 tonnes ligonocellulosic fibres per hectare. An area of 15 lakh hectares is cultivated for jute. In 120 days it can absorb at least 15 tonnes of carbon dioxide from our environment just like the eucalyptus and pine tree which can absorb 11 tonnes of carbon dioxide. In other words, it means that the carbon credit of jute cultivation annually is 2,25,00,000 lakhs (CER), the monetary valuation of which at present is tentatively around 2,700 crore rupees. A farmer can earn around 18,000 rupees from carbon credits by cultivating jute on one hectare of land. Moreover, annually jute cultivation adds 543 lakhs tonnes of dry leaves to the soil, which in turn adds 168,750 tonnes of nitrogen, 56,250 tonnes of phosphorous and 1,50,000 tonnes of potassium.


Jute enhances the organic fertility of the soil for other crop plantation and the valuation of the carbon credit of jute cultivation is pegged at the savings the farmer makes in purchasing inorganic fertilizer. Renewable resource application has made jute a key raw material ingredient in the paper industry. Comparative studies showed that burning one tonne of jute bags emits two gigajoule heat and 150 kg carbon dioxide, whereas burning one tonne of plastic bags emits 63 gigajoule of heat and 1,340 tonnes of carbon dioxide. At present Howrah Jute Mill is using jute sticks and other jute plant remains as bio fuel and has reduced 5,169 tonnes carbon dioxide emission reduction. It has achieved this milestone carbon credit and it has been purchased by the Belgian Government. Organised jute cultivation can help our farmers to earn and save substantial money from carbon credits.



Jute demand scenario

In recent year many jute mills were closed by the management in the aftermath of the Northbrook Jute Mill developments at Bhadreshwar in West Bengal where a senior management executive was killed by jute workers. The management pointed to low work order and labour union problems as the two major causes for the malaise in the industry, though the jute product export figures of West Bengal tell a different story. Abroad the demand for jute products is many times than in India. Plastic and leather products are being substituted by jute products. Statistics say since 2009-10, to 2013-14, the export of jute products has stepped up from 230.8 crores to 483.8 crores. The export of jute bags has increased from 196.6 crores to 244.8 crores in the 2013-14. Jute floor covering  increased by 37 crores from 2012-13 to 2013-14. The lion's share of the export comes from West Bengal. Moreover, pathbreaking research is being done in applications of jute geo-textiles in civil engineering.