Coir
Coir geotextile, a material made from coconut fibre possessing high tensile strength, can be used to prevent soil erosion and also provide enrichment to soil.
Photo: Albert, flickr.com

For three decades, 52-year-old Latha has been a coir weaver from Alappuzha district. But recently, she discontinued the spinning unit at her house and shifted to a co-operative society nearby.

“I used to spin coir in a shed attached to my house along with a few of my neighbours. But for the last few years we were struggling to survive as we were not able to sell our products. I have been in this profession since my early 20s, I don’t know any other work. So I have joined a coir co-operative society as an employee,” she says.

Coir, a traditional industry in Kerala, has been riddled with problems for several years now. Many studies and innovations have been attempted in the industry over the last few decades with an aim to sustain it in a profitable way. But due to lack of technology, infrastructure, competition from neighbouring states, the industry is facing many more challenges.

At this stage, the industry is pinning its hopes on coir geotextiles to bring prosperity to the sector soon.

Coir geotextile is a material made from coconut fibre possessing high tensile strength, punching strength, high water absorption capability and UV resistance. It can also be used as a fertiliser to promote vegetative growth as it degrades after five or six years.

It was in 2017 that Minister for Finance and Coir Thomas Isaac termed coir geotextiles an ‘ottamooli’ (panacea) to revive the industry. Since then it was taken up as a mission, and officials affirm that no other state has developed so much in coir geotextiles, which could soon make the industry profitable.

In the 2018-2019 state budget, the minister declared that the industry would soon witness a second restructuring. The first, executed in the 1950s, was related to the wages of coir weavers and other labourers. The minister urged all agencies functioning for the promotion of the coir industry to practically implement everything that can revive the industry.

Around two lakh families depend on the coir sector for their livelihood and about 80% of the employees in the industry are women. According to a 2018 report by the Kerala Planning Board, “Estimates suggest that 3.75 lakh persons are employed in the coir industry, both in the co-operative and private sectors, of which 80% are women.”

Though the government increased the minimum daily wage of labourers who work in societies from Rs 300 to Rs 350, many of the workers do not get the revised amount as the societies are not running profitably.

“I get only Rs 275 per day. Less than Rs 7,000 a month. Anytime I fall sick, our monthly income goes down further. How can we survive in this situation?” Latha laments.

However, when asked about the second restructuring of the industry and coir geotextiles, she expresses hope. “We don’t want this industry to fade away as it’s our traditional work. Things can change. We have woven this coir carpet with big nets (geotextiles) for the last many years, now they claim it can change the industry,” she says.

Coir Bhoovastra, an eco-friendly cover for earth

Coir geotextiles or coir blankets, also called Coir Bhoovastra, is a woven or knitted net material made from coconut husk, which can be used for preventing soil erosion, constructing roads, renovation of water bodies and landfills, and many other purposes.

“The lignin content in coir is higher than teak or rosewood, which shows how strong it is. The water absorption capacity of the material is also very high,” Anil KR, Director for National Coir Research & Management Institute (NCRMI), tells TNM.

The material is eco-friendly and biodegradable, which makes it suitable for slope stabilisation. “The open cells (netting, mesh) collect the disturbed soil and act as check dams that prevent soil erosion. Once the soil is covered and settled, plants and trees can easily be grown in the area, as the soil is strengthened after the coir degrades over the years. It acts as mulch, providing protection as well as enrichment to the soil,” he explains.

He also points out that coir geotextile easily adapts to the surface on which it is laid. “It retains moisture in the soil and insulates soil and roots from extreme temperatures. It allows water to pass on to the plane without carrying away the topsoil,” he adds.

Coir Bhoovastra enables protection of banks of rivers, canals and lakes. It can also be used in the mud walls of streams, bunds, farms and fish ponds. “By fixing and laying the Bhoovastra along the banks of water bodies, it checks the erosion of soil and maintains the vegetation along the banks. We have used this successfully across Kerala,” he says.

Geotextiles for landslide, flood prone areas

Last year and this year, Kerala witnessed unprecedented rains and the state became highly vulnerable to landslides, floods and debris slides. The discussions over ‘room for river’ concept, renovation of existing canals and streams, protection of hills and coastal areas, surfaced again. Experts from the coir sector say that geotextiles can play a role in all these environmental protection systems.

“We have proved many times that geotextiles can be used for slope management and thereby prevent landslides. We have successfully implemented it too. We will have to identify the spots that require slope management in the state,” Anil says.

Abhishek C, an NCRMI scientist who is presently an associate with the Coir Board, Thiruvananthapuram, points out that the Coir Board is planning a feasibility study with IIT in the 2019 landslide hit regions of the state for slope stabilisation using coir geotextiles. “In Wayanad and other regions, we will check the feasibility. At present, Kerala requires an eco-friendly, effective technology like coir geotextiles,” he adds.

NCRMI has also introduced various other coir products that can bring positive change to the market. Recently, the institution sourced technology for coir fibre boards, which can be an alternative to plywood, from the Netherlands.

Implementation and infrastructure

Anil says that Kerala started exporting this geotextile made of coconut husk decades ago. “But we had no idea what it was used for. We exported the material in the size and design ordered by foreign countries. By the end of the 1990s, we realised its uses. From 2000 onwards we started using coir bhoovastra in roads, rivers, slopes and so on,” he says.

In 2000, a few projects were carried out by NCRMI on an experimental basis. The first was a site in Idukki’s Kambamedu, an area prone to soil erosion. It was a success – vegetation had grown over it within a few weeks. It was later tried in Thiruvananthapuram’s Vilappilsala, in Kuttanad, Western Ghats and other places. It was also used in the French drain installation in Bharathapuzha river in Malappuram district the same year.

In the following years the geotextile was used at different slopes, rivers, canals, agricultural fields, roads, and proved successful. But it didn’t see publicity and a wide acceptance then. The department had to pay for these experiments in the beginning.

It was in 2017 that Kerala started to think seriously about coir geotextiles. Its installation in Kozhikode district’s Kuttiyadi irrigation canal won the Chief Minister’s award for innovation in public policy for the year 2017. The awards were announced in October 2019.

The material was also used in the renovation of various panchayat roads in the state.

“After the reorganisation in the sector was announced, we bagged an order for geotextiles worth Rs 120 crore, of which Rs 43 crore has already been executed. This year, the Coir Department signed MoUs with 657 panchayats and bagged a record order for the sale of 16.65 million sq m of geotextiles. These figures are from just the domestic market, we have been exporting geotextiles for many years,” says Abhishek.

Abhishek calls Kerala a technological hub in the implementation of coir geotextiles for various engineering applications. However, he points that the state has only captured 35-40% of the domestic market and aims at achieving 90%.

“Easy and low cost production is possible for geotextiles compared to other coir products. The low cost Vycome coir, that spun is by both hand and wheel, can be used for this. Weaving for geotextiles is much easier for the labourers,” he adds.

The state is implementing the installation of coir geotextiles through the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act.

NCRMI assures that Kerala has the infrastructure to meet the domestic and export demand for geotextiles. “We have done enough studies, we have enough labourers, technologies and infrastructure. We just have to expand the implementation,” Anil says.

There are 624 coir societies in the state apart from production units owned by individuals. “In the last two financial years, we saw huge development in the sector. The number of working societies have increased. There is considerable increase in the production of both coir fibre and coir yarn,” Abhishek says.

Workers in the sector, however, do not share the optimism and demand a permanent solution to save the ailing industry. “We don’t think coir geotextiles can be a permanent solution to our problems. Geotextiles are now more in demand than other coir products. However, there are no visible changes in the industry. Thousands of small scale coir spinning and weaving units that were functioning in houses in Alappuzha have shut down as the government failed to market their products nor is it willing to buy our products at the rate we want,” says PV Sathyanesan, general secretary, Kerala State Coir Thozhilali Federation (AITUC).

Elaborating on the problems faced by the workers, he adds, “This traditional industry is dying. Many of the weavers have had to quit the industry. Others have joined cooperative societies. Most of the labourers work for just Rs 300 per day. Coir coming from Tamil Nadu is cheaper as their cost of production is less. We still adopt traditional methods, and availability of raw material is  less here. Rather than finding permanent solutions to revive the industry, the government is trying to bring in mechanisation, which is not acceptable to the traditional weavers and labourers.”

Challenges 

The initial challenge was to make coir geotextiles popular. Renovation of water bodies and roads were done at the panchayat level so that local self-government bodies could accept it. “We conducted many seminars and workshops on coir geotextiles to spread awareness among the stakeholders. We were successful to an extent,” Anil says.

However, the geotextile has not been included in the Kerala Public Works Department’s manual as a construction material. “It is not been included yet but we have done all the procedures and soon geotextiles can be widely used in PWD constructed roads,” says Thomas John, Deputy Registrar, Coir Board, Thiruvananthapuram.

He also points out that it was a challenge to bring technology that was acceptable to the labourers. “Any technology brought to the sector should be accepted by the labourers, as this sector is maintained as a traditional industry,” he says.

Another major challenge is the lobby against geotextiles. One Coir Board officer who sought anonymity told TNM that certain road contractors and some officers were against the implementation of geotextiles as their profits would be lost.

“This is a low cost product, moreover it can be laid only by MGNREGA workers. The road contractors, panchayat leaders and a few officers will not have much scope for corruption. Geotextiles were introduced here in 2000, if it’s not popular even after 19 years there are people who are acting against it,” he says.

“Its domestic market alone can bring huge profits to the industry, above that we export it too. Recently we received photographs from a French company on how our coir geotextile was used for the embankment of a coastal area there. We were surprised to see those photographs. Here we destroy our Western Ghats to take stones for constructing sea walls. We never bother to think about alternatives,” he adds.

The officer also contradicts claims about the infrastructure. He says that in the last financial year though the sector got an order for more than 16 million sq m of geotextiles from the domestic market, only about 6.4 million sq m was executed due to lack of infrastructure and of raw materials. “But in the coming years the industry will see a revival as there have been a lot of positive changes in the last few years,” he adds.