Frayed Threads

Coir workers in Kerala struggle for survival

A woman sorts coconut fibre at a coir production unit in Kerala. There are 115 cooperative societies in Alappuzha, employing around twelve thousand workers. The coir workers are predominantly from the Ezhava, Dalit and Muslim communities. Shalini Saran / India Pictures / Universal Images Group / Getty Images
31 January, 2021

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.

In Kerala, the coir industry relied on locally-available fibre for decades, but the appearance in the late 1990s of mandari, a root-wilt disease in coconut trees, led to a scarcity of good-quality husks. Since then, the industry has come to rely on coir from Tamil Nadu. Coir suppliers have taken advantage of natural disasters and economic crises to raise prices, Sivadasan said, and intermediaries in the sale of fibre and finished products corner most of the profit. “The Coir Corporation and Coir Board have set up coco-peat and fibre-extracting machines,” B Sadasivan, who works in Sivadasan’s manufacturing unit, told me, “but most of the machinery lies unused as there is a shortage of quality husks in southern Kerala owing to root-wilt disease.” A 2017 study indicated that northern Kerala can supply sufficient fibre for the state’s coir industry.