India yet to tap the versatility of jute

It’s eco-friendly, economical, amazingly versatile and highly under-rated. It could be India’s answer to plastic bags and has its uses even in soil conservation. Jute, the Cinderella of textile fibres, is just waiting to be rescued from the anonymity of research centres.

“Jute has been able to withstand the onslaught of synthetic fibres and plastic,” says Dr SK Bhattacharyya of the National Institute of Research on Jute and Allied Fibre Technology (NIRJAFT) in Calcutta.

“But all that was in the past,” he adds. With plastic bags posing a big environmental hazard, the search is on for alternatives.

And this search should stop at jute, feels DR Bhattacharyya. For NIRJAFT has already come out with cheap disposable carrybags made from biodegradable jute fibres. The price of an average-sized bag could be as low as 20 paise, he claims. He says that the manufacture of these bags could be taken up by existing plastic bag making units with minimal extra investment.

NIRJAFT has come out with clothes, woolens, bedsheets, blankets and wall hangings—all made of jute. Sadly, the prototypes of most of these products are languishing in the research labs for want of better marketing.

In fact, handmade paper can be made from jute waste. This can give employment to thousands of people in the villages with very little investment.

But of special interest, say scientists, is the use f soil in soil conservation. Special blankets made of jute called ‘geotextiles’, are laid beneath a layer of soil. They have a great ability to conserve moisture, moderate soil temperature and stimulate rapid root development. They keep the soil and fertilisers together. They can even be used in canal linings to prevent soil erosion, says Dr BB Sarcar.

In fact nurseries can have jute bags for saplings instead of plastic bags. These can be buried straight into the ground and the bags will degrade into the soil in a matter of time.

Jute is cultivated in humid tropical countries only and India has a world market share of 41.8 per cent. In 1995-96, jute exports were worth Rs 234 crore. If we manage to carve out a niche market in jute products, this figure can only increase.

(This article appeared in the Hindustan Times newspaper on May 17, 2000)