The wetland region of Muhamma, located between the Vembanad Lake and the Arabian Sea in Kerala’s Alappuzha district, occupies a significant place in the history of the communist movement in what was once the princely state of Travancore. The region is also one of Kerala’s main centres of coir production. When I visited the village of Madathinkara, in November last year, 50-year-old Kummam Kode Sivadasan and his colleagues were busy in the coir-mat production unit next to his house. The son of an agricultural labourer, Sivadasan took to coir-weaving in 1985, after finishing the tenth standard. “I started as a weaver in small coir factories in our locality,” he told me. “I set up this coir-weaving unit in 2002, with a loan of Rs 5 lakh.” Though Sivadasan and his co-workers seemed to have settled into the new rhythms of daily life created by the COVID-19 pandemic, they remained worried about an uncertain future.
Coir products largely find markets in Europe, the Americas, East Asia and other parts of the world. The shift to working from home increased domestic demand for coir products such as mats, but even so the picture remains bleak for coir workers.
“The unexpected expenses related to the education of our children, for purchasing internet data and smartphones, have added to our burden,” Sivadasan told me. He and his workers were more worried about the rising price of raw materials and the slow economic recovery from the pandemic than about the risk of being infected by the coronavirus. As an export-oriented business, the coir industry is not expected to recover until maritime commerce picks up pace again.