Policy Plunge

As Sustainability Becomes A Buzzword, Time To Relook Role Of Jute In Mission LiFE

What makes it important to recognise the big part that this natural fibre can play in promoting environment friendly lifestyle is that it is universally acknowledged as helpful in advancing the sustainability cause

With so much talk on sustainability and the need for a whole-of-society approach to keep the rise in global temperature under check, it is surprising that jute has, thus far, not figured prominently in deliberations on Mission LiFE.

India has been strongly advocating Mission LiFE (lifestyle for environment) as an effective solution to protect planet earth from the adverse effects of climate change.

Launched in October 2022 prior to the COP27 climate conference in Egypt, Mission LiFE has already proved to be one of India’s biggest diplomatic successes, with it even being included in the G20 New Delhi Leaders’ Declaration that was adopted in September 2023. United Nations Secretary General Antonio Guterres, too, has praised the Mission LiFE initiative. 

What makes the absence of a bigger mention of jute in discussions on sustainability and Mission LiFE baffling is that this natural fibre is universally acknowledged as environment-friendly and helpful in promoting the sustainability cause.The astonishment on this front is compounded further by the fact that India is the world’s largest producer of jute. 

Most of India’s jute production takes place in the eastern region, predominantly in West Bengal due to the state having the highest number of jute mills. The sector employs about 400,000 workers, including workers dependent on the jute industry’s forward and backward linkages. 

While explaining the benefits of jute in promoting sustainability, the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) has said: “Jute products consume less energy and are carbon negative, scoring a good ecological footprint. Jute can play a major role in achieving sustainable environmental objectives for countries across the globe who strive to mitigate greenhouse gases.”

The FAO has also added that “positive externalities generated by the use of JACKS (jute, abaca, coir, kenaf and sisal)-based products can help offset some of the negative environmental impacts associated with plastic production and disposal.” 

Jute does not find a prominent mention in the Mission LiFE brochure, the 6th version of which is currently available in the public domain (https://missionlife-moefcc.nic.in/aboutLiFE.php), except a cursory reference to it in the section on “Reduce Waste”.

Ideally, jute finding a bigger place in the Mission LiFE document could have served as a signal from India to the world about how greater use of this fibre globally may contribute significantly towards promoting sustainability and a circular economy.

India’s apex business chambers – Ficci, CII, and Assocham – have also not been too vocal about the role that jute can play vis-à-vis Mission LiFE. The local chambers of commerce based in the states where jute production takes place have been equally reticent to discuss the subject.

What is even more extraordinary is that jute companies – whom one would have expected to act as the biggest ambassadors of how the fibre could advance the Mission LiFE agenda – have not been seen to be proactive in this matter.

Individually or collectively, there has been no large-scale, significant nationwide campaigns carried out by local jute industry players – many of which are sizable companies by turnover – about the benefits of the fibre even though such efforts can lead to a potential groundswell of support for the sector.

Campaigns may potentially encourage more people to increase their usage of jute products – be those carry bags, curtains, rugs, etc. – which, in turn, can likely increase the retail sales of jute companies within India, besides, of course, providing an added impetus to the lifestyle for environment movement.  

In addition, successful outreach campaigns can strengthen the voice of the jute industry when it comes to discussions with the government on ways to strengthen the sector. Besides, contributing to addressing a general negative perception which has got built over time that jute is a “sunset sector”.

Too Much Dependance On Government

Presently, the biggest form of support provided by the government to the jute sector is in the form of the mandatory use of jute bags in packaging as per the provisions of the Jute Packaging Materials (Compulsory Use in Packing Commodities) Act 1987 (JPM Act). 

On December 08, 2023, the Cabinet Committee on Economic Affairs chaired by Prime Minister Narendra Modi approved reservation norms for mandatory use of jute in packaging for the Jute Year 2023 -24 (July 01, 2023 - June 30, 2024).

The mandatory packaging norms approved for Jute Year 2023-24 provided for 100 percent reservation of foodgrains and 20 percent of sugar to be compulsorily packed in jute bags.

Modi said the "decision will contribute towards revitalizing the jute sector! It also marks a major boost for our artisans and farmers”. In a similar post on the social media handle X on December 8, 2023, Textiles minister Piyush Goyal said the Cabinet decision “will extend substantial relief to 4 lakh jute workers & aid 40 lakh farmer families.”

Currently, 75 per cent of the total production of the jute industry is jute sacking bags of which 85 percent is supplied to the Food Corporation of India (FCI) and state procurement agencies (SPAs) and the balance is exported/sold directly. Jute production stood at 1,246.6 thousand metric tonnes during 2022-23 compared to 1,080 thousand metric tonnes in 2021-22.

Every year, the Central government purchases jute sacking bags worth nearly Rs 12,000 crore for packing foodgrains to ensure a guaranteed market for the produce of jute farmers and workers. In a move aimed to help the jute industry more, the Odisha government in 2023 had floated a tender to procure 2 crore jute shopping bags to encourage people to use these for their regular shopping requirements. The Secretariat had described the  decision as a great example that other states could emulate.

Way Forward

At the end of the day, in a world hungry for sustainability solutions that can be easily adopted, jute offers a ray of hope as its sustainability credentials are already firmly established.

Jute being accorded the importance that it deserves in the Mission LiFE agenda – with key stakeholders displaying the willingness to engage on this issue more – would only be in the fitness of things since this natural fibre ticks all the right boxes on the sustainability parameter and can contribute effectively to fight climate change. 

Some of the measures that authorities could look at for ensuring that jute finds a greater place in discussions on Mission LiFE could be through the following:  

  • Have the Mission LiFE literature – brochures, e-books, etc. – articulate in greater detail how jute could contribute to the lifestyle for environment movement.
  • Plan a high-voltage marketing campaign that revolves around how greater use of jute products can shape a better world and how ordinary citizens can contribute to this effort, with the Ministry of Textiles coordinating with the Ministry of Environment, Forest and Climate Change for the purpose of such a campaign.
  • Organise a competition where young people are asked to design the logo for a proposed marketing campaign on jute and institute awards for those with the best design ideas.
  • Highlight the value of greater use of jute products during national and international conferences on sustainability and climate, including at the upcoming COP29 conference in Azerbaijan.
  • Earmark greater use of jute rugs/curtains etc. at government offices & advise private companies to consider doing the same, and
  • Encourage the Anusandhan National Research Foundation (NRF) to engage more with dedicated jute research institutions to come with new and better-quality research papers on the sustainability properties of jute and have these presented more frequently at international forums.

The above is by no means an exhaustive list and can surely be worked on by relevant stakeholders. What is important is that the value that jute can bring to Mission LiFE is more widely recognized and steps taken to propagate that message.

For, as former CII eastern region chairman Aloke Mookherjea said, “It’s (been) late but we could start now.”

(The author is a current affairs commentator. Views expressed are personal.)

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