The case of jute: Surviving, sustaining, succeeding

Imtiaz A. Hussain | Published: April 18, 2019 21:29:27

Once serving as the country's "golden fibre," jute now plays a diminished economic role in acreage, farm production, manufacturing output proportion, and trade contributions. It was relegated from the mid-1970s for a variety of reasons, one among them being competition from synthetic fibre. Today it stands ready to recapture its old glory and return to its "golden age" if we play the right cards, mobilise the right people, and push creativity over profit-making.

At stake today is a world increasingly wary of its plastic dependence (synthetic fibres), for irrefutable environmental reasons. James K. Boyce warned us even in the mid-1990s how polypropylene, a synthetic fibre, was not only displacing our jute exports, but also distorting the market because of its high pollution effects. Jute, he concluded, "appears to have a comparative environmental advantage" (Bangladesh Development Studies, March-June 1995). He further rejected the prevailing wisdom that exports from less developed countries were environmentally costlier than those from the industrialised world.

Today there is overwhelming evidence in favour of raw materials for environmental protection/enhancement. For Bangladesh that renews the jute future, even though we need more game-changers than this revival. Against the backdrop of RMG (ready-made garments) successes, it has been uphill to mobilise investors in other sectors, just as it has been hard to shift government policies to pump up the jute industry as fast as we must, if we are to enjoy our comparative advantage. This opportunity window will not last, as discussed below.

Beforehand, one must acknowledge how jute end-products and usages have shifted profoundly. From bags, sacks, twine, and woven fabrics, international demand is tweaking jute yarn and carpet more now, as well as substitutes for low-end, common synthetic fibres.  Even more cutting-edge is to produce cement using natural fibres, like jute, instead of costlier steel and glass, as well as environmentally damaging synthetics: concrete can crack or become more porous with synthetic fibres. JFRCC (jute fibre reinforced concrete composites) testing has shown how short-and-low jute content, as opposed to the long and high, enhanced the "mechanical properties of concrete composites (Textile and Clothing Sustainability, January 2017).

Debiprasad Gon and others have also alerted us to yet other environment enhancements by shifting to jute (International Journal of Textile Sciences, 2012). Trees, for example, do not have to be chopped down for wood since jute composites serve as effective, sustainable substitutes: boards can be made from jute-coir composites, railway coaches from jute-glass composites, and this month this newspaper discussed how the French NatUpFibres had turned to Bangladeshi jute for manufacturing automobile indoor components ("French natural fibre processor working on jute products", Meer Saiful Islam, Financial Express, April 14, 2019).

Of course, the country displacing Bangladesh as the top jute producer, India (both monopolise the global market), is capitalising on these new discoveries through its far more concerted jute revivalism than here in Bangladesh. Not only is the Gon observation finding more practical outlets, but how jute bamboo composites are on the threshold of exploding into the West Bengal market, with Excel Composites Pvt., Ltd., among the forerunners, shows how rigid the Bangladesh jute sector remains. From other studies, by Mohini Saxena, et al. (Journal of Composite Materials, January 2008), we learn how natural fibres, like jute, can have enormous engineering applications: from door shutters, flooring tiles, roofing sheets, partitions, and so forth. Since finding plastic substitutes is increasingly imperative, huge opportunities open.

On behalf of the World Trade Organisation (WTO) and the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD), the International Trade Center multi-country report on jute ("A road map for jute," 2006), depicted jute competitiveness slipping from Bangladesh to India. Both faced diminishing yields for about two decades (1960s and 1970s), with output below the 1.5 million tons threshold (India infrequently crossed that threshold). Yet, from the mid-1980s, India's surge pushed output beyond 2.0 million tons by the turn of the century, while Bangladesh's sticky-feet pushed production far below the 1.0 million ton mark. While the acreage trend collapsed by half in Bangladesh, it remained fairly much the same over that same time-span in India (albeit, with plenty of annual variations). Nationalisation impacted jute in both countries, but Indian growers benefited from a minimum support price too, crucially pushing farmers to extract protection from the government against synthetics, particularly in the packaging sector, which the Bangladesh counterparts were too feeble to articulate. In the final analysis, diminishing demand in importing North American, West European, and the Soviet Union bloc countries, helped India diversify partners and production faster and better than we did.

These are the monumental gaps inherited by the 21st century. Both the 2011 National Jute Policy and the 2014 National Jute Policy promoted privatisation. Although this is happening far slower than helpful, the goal is to make the jute industry second only to its RMG counterpart as a foreign exchange earner by 2021. That involves a large-scale factory conversion, not only from the public to the private, but hopefully also from prior environment-oblivious production lines to new environmentally sensitive ones.

Problems begin right here. When formed in 1972 to supervise jute mills left behind by West Pakistani owners, the Bangladesh Jute Mills Corporation (BJMC) had 82 factories, each an operationally losing concern. No attention was paid modernising the machines, let alone diversifying production (meaning, getting new machines and technologies), thus making them a burden rather than a blessing. Even as those factories were privatised, no incentives to innovate or revitalise prevailed, and particularly against a RMG counterpart blazing the country's manufacturing trails with far less input and capital. Privatised factories formed the Bangladesh Jute Mills Association, an obviously larger group in numbers, but not in much else. Production remained stagnant until the above two plans were floated, then sharply rising from about 1.0 million tons (where it lingered for two decades), to about 7.0 million tons presently.

This is the kind of a spurt the private sector needs in other production dimensions, such as research/design (R/D), far more beneficial to the country. "Land, labour, and irrigation are the main productivity drivers for jute," Sanzidur Rahman and his colleagues conclude from their 2017 study ("Exploring the future potential of jute in Bangladesh"), towards which ends they propose "investments in research and development, irrigation, and tenurial reform and export protection for white jute" (whose "financial probability" is far higher).

To these must be added the drivers pointed out in this article: diversifying to the already tested new areas, especially substituting synthetics in concrete and replacing wood in order to play the environmental card. It is in the environmental arena where Bangladesh's maximum mileage lies: adding to its original export items new plastic-substituting or wood-replacing products. This opportunity window is so large that jute becoming the country's second export-leading sector behind RMG products in two more years is more than feasible if, and only if, we rise to the occasion.

Dr. Imtiaz A. Hussain is Professor & Head of the Department of Global Studies & Governance at Independent University, Bangladesh.


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