Tamil Nadu's steadily increasing exports of coir fibre to China is posing a major challenge to Kerala's coir industry that is already beset with enough problems.
Kerala government officials say that with Rs. 300 crore worth of fibre getting exported to China annually from Tamil Nadu, Kerala - - where coir is the biggest cottage industry - - is feeling the pinch.
It all began with the 2008 Olympics that China hosted when Beijing imported a vast quantity of coir mattresses.
Simultaneously, it also bought machines to produce yarn from fibre. It was the beginning of Kerala's new challenge.
Ordinarily, Kerala would be the main buyer of coir fibre from neighbouring Tamil Nadu. But once China entered the picture and began buying all varieties of fibre compared to Kerala's obsession with the finest quality, Beijing became a major market for Tamil Nadu.
"Tamil Nadu's export of fibre to China is one of our major challenges, " Rani George, secretary in the Department of Coir Development in the Kerala government, told a small group of visiting journalists including from IANS.
"China produces coir mattresses in large quantities. And it is even exporting them now, " she added, giving a peep into how Beijing claws its way into many industries around the world.
Added K. R. Anil, director of the National Coir Research and Management Institute (NCRMI): "We require good quality fibre. But China buys all kinds. As far as Tamil Nadu is concerned, this suits them. "
Rani George said it was "a big problem".
Coconut husks provide coir fibre of varying varieties, and this is turned into yarn which goes into making coir products. Most of the fibre production takes place in Tamil Nadu.
The irony is that Kerala produces six billion coconuts every year. But less than 20 percent comes to the coir industry in the form of husks - - because there are not enough workers to pick up the scattered husks.
In any case, this is no easy task. Workers feel they don't get paid adequately for what is an arduous task.
Here, Tamil Nadu, with large coconut holdings, finds the collection process easier. Kerala mostly has small holdings, and owners of coconut trees often do not have labourers even to climb and pluck them.
And unlike Tamil Nadu, coir has been a traditional industry in Kerala, with the government committed to the welfare of its 380, 000 workers. Even bringing them out of the tedious traditional manufacturing process has not been easy.
NCRMI's Anil admits that mechanisation in the industry in Kerala should have happened a quarter century ago.
"At that time there was tremendous opposition from trade unions, who argued that machines would take away jobs, " he explained.
"Naturally, over time, workers began leaving the industry because of heavy work and low wages. It is drudgery. The new generation was not keen to enter the coir industry.
"Now unions have realised the need to bring in machines. The new generation will come in only when the drudgery goes. And wages improve, " Anil added.
A desperate but determined Kerala government is doing all it can to revive the traditional industry.
And it knows where to begin - - collect husks from all around Kerala. New incentives have been announced so that the husks, instead of rotting, become fibre.
With China casting a long shadow, it is a tough challenge.
(M. R. Narayan Swamy can be contacted at narayan. swamy@ians. in)