Jute, a coarse fiber used to make fabrics like hessian, has been cultivated for centuries in the hot and humid climate of the Ganges delta. Some of India’s jute mills have been in operation for over a century, and today the country is the largest producer in the world.
But in recent decades the industry has struggled as cheaper synthetic substitutes have flooded the market. Farmers turned to other crops, cheap labor moved elsewhere, and factories deteriorated for lack of investment.
Now, however, what had been Jute’s weakness is its potential strength. As much of the world seeks biodegradable alternatives to synthetic materials like plastics, Indian jute is circling the globe, from supermarkets in the United States to fashion houses in France to wine producers in Italy. .
“Natural is all the rage now,” said Raghavendra Gupta, a senior official with the Indian Jute Mills Association, a trade body in West Bengal’s capital Kolkata, home to 70 of the country’s 93 jute mills. “There is nothing more eco-friendly than jute.”
Much of the hope for a revival of India’s jute industry hinges on the ban on single-use plastics that dozens of countries, including India, have enacted in recent years.
For years, the industry mainly produced burlap sacks to hold rice and other grains, backed by government mandates. Now he’s pushing to branch out into decorative fabrics, flooring, curtains, and most importantly, reusable shopping bags.
The global jute bag market is expected to grow from $2.3 billion in 2021 to $3.38 billion in 2026, Gupta said. Shopping bags accounted for a quarter of the roughly $400 million worth of jute products India exported in 2021, and over the past five years, the country’s jute bag exports have more than tripled, Gupta said. .
The United States is by far the largest export market for all Indian jute products, growing 25.5% last year to nearly $100 million.
“Bags are pulling this industry from sleep,” said Varun Agarwala, executive director of Ballyfabs International, a manufacturer in Kolkata. “It’s called a bag for life: affordable, robust and environmentally friendly.”
On a recent morning, hundreds of workers with their heads bowed sewed jute and cotton sacks inside the Ballyfabs factory in Howrah district in the eastern state of West Bengal. The company exports jute bags to more than 50 countries on five continents. Its customers include Trader Joe’s and E.Leclerc, a French supermarket chain.
Agarwala said that after his company invested in modern machinery and robotic printing, a worker who once made 100 bags a day could now make 500 to meet demand. After an expansion in May, the company now has the capacity to produce 75 million bags per year.
Ballyfabs’ efforts are part of a modernization push by industry and the Indian government. In recent years, the government has created several programs to help farmers improve their production and companies buy more modern machinery.
The industry’s product diversification will help it open up export markets and slowly reduce its dependence on the government as a major customer, experts said.
“Starting from seed technology, skill upgrading, factory machinery to fiber production, we are improving everything,” said Gouranga Kar, the head of the Central Research Institute for the jute and allied fibres, run by the government,” and this has led to our exports doubling over the past two years.
Almost all of the world’s jute is produced in West Bengal and Bangladesh. When the Indian subcontinent was partitioned by the British in 1947 and Bengal was divided into two regions, the new borders separated the jute mills in India from the fields of what would become Bangladesh.
In the decades that followed, the cultivation of raw jute began to revive in West Bengal and a few other Indian states. The industry flourished along the Hooghly River in West Bengal, where the first jute factory was established by a British businessman in 1855.
By the 1980s, however, many factories had closed as the market for jute was eroded by plastics. To support the livelihoods of over 4 million farmers and tens of thousands of factory workers, the Indian government has ordered that all grain and 20% of sugar be packed in coarse bags.
Now, as the industry seeks a wider consumer base, companies are experimenting with the design, style and shape of jute bags, producing smaller souvenir bags for shops and hotels and larger bags for fashion houses and supermarkets. They also make new textiles by mixing cotton with jute.
Jute is more durable than cotton, requires fewer resources to grow, and has a shorter growing time. For many, it has a rough aesthetic appeal. And cheap labor lowers its costs.
Shopping bags accounted for a quarter of the roughly $400 million worth of jute products India exported in 2021, Gupta said.
Jute also provides a longer income stream to farmers as they can first sell its leaves as a vegetable. Later, its inner stalk is used to make paper, while the outer layer produces fibers. Leftover sticks are used to make charcoal and gunpowder. The plant also absorbs carbon dioxide at a high rate.
India’s jute industry has faced a labor shortage as education levels rise in Bihar, Uttar Pradesh and Odisha, impoverished states where jute mills have traditionally attracted most of their workforce. And the factories, with their noisy machines, have a hard time attracting young workers.
On a recent afternoon, workers lined up outside one of Asia’s largest jute mills, the Hukumchand Jute Mill in southern West Bengal. The mill operates 24 hours a day and the machines only shut down on 10 public holidays each year.
Inside, migrant workers were unloading bundles of jute from trucks. Within seconds they began cutting the tough roots from the sticks to feed the raw material into a line of machines. Soon after, another group of workers fed the fiber into spreaders, where an emulsion was applied.
A few meters further, machines launched large rolls of jute. A drafting machine then fed the jute into spinning frames, where it was spun into yarn. After a winding and winding process, the yarn was made into fabric in the loom. It was then cut to the required size, and the resulting bags were then printed, bundled and prepared for shipping.
To reduce the labor shortage, the industry will need to attract more women, said Samir Kumar Chandra, a senior official at Hukumchand Mills. While female workers perform higher, Chandra said, the industry has long been inhospitable to them due to unequal wages and inadequate facilities for women, among other issues. But companies are now offering better benefits to women, and the number of female workers is slowly increasing.
At the other end of the process, the lives of tens of thousands of farmers engaged in the cultivation of raw jute have improved dramatically in recent years, said Shabnum Kineer, a folk singer and farmer.
Kineer said that after working with jute for a decade, she has become very knowledgeable about its cultivation and harvesting. She now advises farmers on how to maximize the production of jute, which is planted every year between the two rice seasons.
“When they listen to me, I’m proud of it and people respect me,” said Kineer, who is transgender, an often shunned and abused group in India. “And over the last decade, my income has also tripled.”