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How foreign invasion crippled incense-sticks industry

BusinessHow foreign invasion crippled incense-sticks industry

Bamboo is booming again! And, there are a number of positive attributes of this grassy material that have helped it gain momentum in the marketplace after the Narendra Modi government placed the import of raw agrarbatti from the free trade to the Restricted trade category. The myths—designed by some vested interests— have created havoc about the heightened popularity of Indian bamboo, which could have been otherwise attributed to an increase in knowledge and awareness of its property in this popular grass of India.

And, creating confusion about Indian cereals, oilseeds, crops, plants and trees and defaming them to promote some foreign substitutes is not a new phenomenon for anti-India lobbies. The kachchi-ghani mustard oil and cow-ghee, which had been declared best fats for the human being by many scientific researches, were once upon a time defamed as the biggest bad-cholesterol carriers leading to heart attacks, being instrumental in the closure of thousands of such units and leaving lakhs of people jobless. Likewise, these forces canvassed in every part of India for plantation of eucalyptus which virtually swallowed away the precious salinity of Indian soils.

The similar design behind this game was to demoralise bamboo-related activities also—particularly in incense sticks (agarbatti)-making in India, despite the fact that our nation stands the runner-up in the world in bamboo production.

Bamboo, from times immemorial, has been part and parcel of Indian culture. In the ancient Gurukuls, both Acharyas and Brahmacharis used to carry thin bamboo sticks (dand) in their hands. People used to plant precious and pious bamboos near their houses as it is considered auspicious and one of the best conductors of electricity, serving them as lightening rod from thunderstorm.

Bamboo has the ability to grow everywhere in different climate conditions, and it reduces carbon dioxide and increases the production of oxygen as much as 30% more than other plants. Bamboo is among the fastest growing and most adaptable materials on the planet. It can grow up to two inches per hour and matures in about 3-5 years, providing a constant and never-ending supply to the marketplace as bamboo can be grown on marginal and already worked-over lands.

From ancient times, incense sticks had been the Indian custom to celebrate anything—from religious rituals to family functions. And, it was the focal point that attracted foreign forces. First, they wrongly propagated about the drawbacks of bamboo sticks being used in agarbatti-making and then in connivance with the foreign suppliers, they started ruling the roost in the agarbatti Industry in India, which had consequently broken the backbone of agarbatti manufacturers back home. An internal survey by the Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) has found that there is a sharp decline in setting up of new agarbatti manufacturing units in the country despite a growth of 10% annually. Even having huge employment potential in the bamboo sector, the number of agarbatti projects have been declining and forcing them to put their shutters down, since import duty on Raw Agarbatti and Round Bamboo Sticks had been reduced from 30% to 10% in 2011, which has resulted in rise in import of Raw Agarbatti into India from Rs 31 crore in 2009 to Rs 546 crore in 2018 and of Round Bamboo Sticks from Rs 0.5 crore in 2009 to Rs 213 crore in 2018.

The carpet industry was destroyed by similar campaigns of child labour. Beedi and tobacco industries also faced the same destiny, which generate jobs to 3.4 crore people with revenue generation of Rs 40,000 crore as taxes. It is being destroyed of similar campaigns of anti-tobacco drives by foreign NGOs. Luring policymakers with catchy slogans of “tobacco-free kids” and convincing them to increase taxes up to 35% on Indian tobacco, cigarettes and beedis, they were virtually making safe passage for foreign cigarettes in India on the pretext of tobacco-free kids. Surprisingly, these forces even halted the construction of several dam and power projects of national importance, in the name of fake human rights’ violation campaigns, reports of displacement and environmental degradation etc. All these things took place with the concerted efforts made by select foreign-funded NGOs, to take down Indian development projects. Latest in this list is the case of the Indian National Flag. Due to import of counterfeit flags made of plastic and other non-Khadi fabrics, the sale and production of the National Flag is going down considerably since fiscal 2017-18, leading to job losses for Khadi artisans. And this, despite the fact that in the recent past, the national pride and passion has significantly gone high, obviously due to the proactive decisions taken by the present government and the public in general has started using the National Flag as a token to express their Indianness in the country and abroad.

Everyone knows that a good chunk of Indian NGOs, funded by foreign donors, had used people-centric issues to create an environment that ultimately stall developmental projects. Agitation against nuclear power plants, uranium mines, coal-fired power plants, genetically modified organisms (GMO), mega-industrial projects and hydro-projects have taken down Indian development projects, subsequently taking down the GDP growth by 2-3% per annum earlier. We have seen in the past that once these foreign NGOs are around for a few years, they start ruling the roost, by obliging bureaucrats, media and the so-called intelligentsia to turn them as a “voice of the people” and it becomes really difficult to neutralise their dent.

Interestingly, it was the eyewash and false propaganda of the importers—playing in the hands of foreign forces—that despite being the second largest bamboo producer in the world, the domestic supply of bamboo is not more than 10% of the entire demand by the industry. Every year, the agarbatti industry is importing round bamboo sticks worth around Rs 250 crore. There has been a huge employment loss also due to India’s heavy dependency on imports of Bamboo Sticks and Raw Agarbatti as right from plantation, cutting, transportation, stick-making, charcoal-making, jiggat-powdering, Raw Agarbatti-making manually or mechanically, sorting of battis, perfuming, packaging and  marketing, in every sphere it creates direct employment, mostly to women—which generates cash income for them. Sample the case of Ahmedabad city, where over 3,200 Agarbatti vendors were registered a decade ago. But, heavy imports finally broke the backbone of both agarbatti-makers and the petty vendors. And, let us not forget the fact that it is one of the best industries to alienate poverty. The social dimension of the Agarbatti industry in India is very significant as a majority of workers of this sector are from socially marginalised and economically disadvantaged group.

India was the largest producer of agarbatti in the world way back in 2008, with an estimated production 208 billion sticks annually and a market value of more than Rs 4,163 crore. Surprisingly, till 2011, India’s own resources were able to meet the demand of 1,172 metric tonnes per day, but due to the negative and concerted campaign against the Indian Agarbatti industry such as inferior quality, superiority of round sticks over India’s quadrangle sticks, non-availability of jiggat powder and above all defaming bamboo as ill-starred and fateful as it is used in last rites etc., the industry started declining like other projects, which had faced similar campaigns against them by the foreign forces. Sadly, our import dependency has mounted up to 77.35% in 2018 with respect to a mere 1.10% in 2009.

The government needs to build a compressive plan to promote bamboo cultivation as it takes three years to harvest bamboo and farmers need to be made aware about the benefits, besides imposing heavy import duty on import of Raw Agarbatti and Round Bamboo Sticks, to save the lost grace of Indian agarbatti.

Thanks to Modi government for its timely intervention which has brought fragrance and smiles on the faces of nearly one million direct-indirect workers of this fading industry.

Time has come when the government must be vigilant so that the home-grown industry is not destroyed by foreign invasion, like the plunders did with the “Golden Bird” in the past.

Vinai Kumar Saxena is the Chairman of Khadi & Village Industries Commission


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