Once upon a time, jute bags produced in this land used to make their way across the oceans. Dubbed 'the golden fibre', it carved the most distinctive agro-industry here stipulating major labour market and a flourishing traders' community, not to mention the growth of sprawling jute mills in every nook and corner of this land. Historically, jute offered living and prosperity to millions of farmers while contributing the most to the exchequer of the British colonial powers and thereafter to that in Pakistan and for a while in Bangladesh.
In the 19th century, jute helped in the growth of several economic barons in the United Kingdom and eastern region of India (mainly around 'Calcutta'). The value of jute was well understood by the Scottish entrepreneurs who set up dozens of mills in Dundee. A major engagement of the British East India Company was to take jute grown here to feed the mills in Scotland. In fact, several Scottish cities grew up with fortunes from jute.
However, with the advent of synthetic fibre, polythene and plastics, the value of jute began to be eclipsed. In the backdrop of a sharp fall in its demand, locally and internationally, farmers opted to grow other agro-crops while hundreds of mills shut down operations that laid off thousands of employees. The nuts, bolts and spinning wheels of the mills also started to rust and decay.
Though there have been several attempts to revive the jute industry, nothing noticeable has happened so far. The International Jute Organisation (IJO) set up its office in Dhaka but reportedly remained in limbo. The Jute Research Institute (JRI), oldest mono-crop research institutions in the country, has also not been able to showcase any breakthrough report. It has particularly failed to conduct and devise any formula in economic and marketing research aspect for jute. To talk about the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC), it has been riddled with allegations of mismanagement and corruption. The corporation needs to be well audited and revamped to make it more dynamic. On the other side of the border, there are already aggressive measures taken by the government for revival of the sector.
It is good that the government here has re-stressed the need for revival of the jute industry. The Mandatory Jute Packaging Act 2010 has been a milestone in this regard and the cabinet approval for enacting the Jute Act 2016 is also a good boost in this pursuit. Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina's recent declaration of jute as a key agro-product is further expected to stimulate widespread cultivation of the crop.
Jute is the cheapest natural fibre which is eco-friendly because it is biodegradable and replenishable. In the backdrop of strong global hype for eco-friendly products, this deltaic crop thus has enormous prospects. There is already a buoyant market for jute products in the global automobile, construction and other sectors where jute is blended with plastics to make durable, light weight and innovative materials. If chemically treated, jute could also be used for geo-textiles, insulation, paper and even denim fabrics.
With all these opportunities on the façade, more pragmatic steps should be roped in to bring back the shine of jute. While incentives can be given to the farmers to engage in jute cultivation, the age-old mills should be revamped with high tech shafts and spinning wheels. Such can ensure a renaissance of our glorious golden fibre-jute.
(The writer is a CSR consultant and broadcaster. [email protected])