Neither hair nor there: export deals a blow to Bengal’s cottage industry

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Sahabuddin Mullick, 46, sits by the doorway of a 12ft by 10ft room, comb in hand, brushing strands of hair atop a wooden bust. Others in the room weave hair into a piece of cloth to make a wig.

“The lockdown was a nightmare. Business hasn’t picked up yet, and then there are touts and middlemen. Our whole village thrives on processing human hair, but there is no government support,” says Mullick, who has been in the business for 25 years and employs around 20 young people in the workshop he runs from his home. in the village of Mullickpole in Howarh, about 60 km from Calcutta.

Now came another blow. On January 25, the Center imposed export restrictions, at the request of the hair industry, to control smuggling. From now on, an exporter needs an authorization or a license from the General Directorate of Foreign Trade.

SK Ali Hossain and his son SK Sikender Ali, who are original hair wig traders, at their office in Mullick Pol, Ulberia, Howrah. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Welcoming the Centre’s decision, Sunil Eamani, Association of Hair and Hair Products Manufacturers and Exporters of India, told PTI that unchecked smuggling is hurting local industries and exports.

During the April-November period of this fiscal year, hair exports amounted to $144.26 million, a huge jump from $15.28 million in 2020-21. West Bengal is a major contributor to this, with some estimates placing its share at over 50% of exports.

And the hub of trade are the districts of Howrah, Murshidabad, Malda and Purba Medinipur, where human hair processing is a cottage industry. The Centre’s new rules, these traders fear, could mean a monopoly for a handful of licensed exporters, further squeezing their shrinking profits.

Mullick sources raw hair and, after processing, sells it to middlemen, who in turn resell it to exporters. “I used to sell 200 bundles of processed human hair per month (each bundle weighs around 1kg). My unit closed for a year after the 2020 lockdown and I had to take out loans to retain my workers Now my sales are down to 20 packs a month.

The routine involves agents collecting or purchasing hair from homes and temples and bringing it to workshops. Many women in these areas keep the hair they lose while combing their hair, and every four to five months an agent buys it for them. Hair donated in southern temples also makes its way here.

Depending on the quality, the hair can sell for Rs 500 to Rs 5,000 per kg. The price varies according to the length. A kilogram of good 50 inch human hair can sell for between Rs 90,000 and Rs 1.10 lakh. It is the treatment that makes the difference, with treated hair selling for almost double the price of regular hair.

Workers making wigs with original hair at Mullick Pole, Uluberia, Howrah district. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

The treatment consists of detangling the hair, shampooing it and sometimes dyeing it. Then it is stored (in wooden crates with iron nails), pulled constantly for hours for additional detangling and smoothing. Households in the village also do the disentangling, for a fee.

Shuvendu Dolui, 19, has worked with Mullick for five years. With expert ease, he indicates the “50 types of wooden busts, for different head shapes” for wigs.

Depending on their skills, workers are paid between Rs 2,000 and Rs 18,000 per month, for 10 hours of work per day.
Sheikh Saifuddin Ali, 52, says middlemen in big cities like Kolkata, Delhi and Mumbai are a necessary evil. “How can exporters come to the villages? And we don’t have the infrastructure to export on our own.

A unit here has however been very successful, having supplied wigs and hairpieces for Bollywood and Tollywood as well as the television industry. Cheikh Ali Hossain, 70, started his business 50 years ago with his father. “We then collected hair from middlemen, processed it and made wigs…I personally traveled with Bengali movie stars like Biswajit Chatterjee and Soumitra Chatterjee.

A worker processing a bundle of hair at a factory in Kulai, Sheikh para of Panchla in Howrah district. (Express photo by Partha Paul)

Hossain’s sons Sabir Ali and Sekender Ali have now taken over the business. Sabir says they built a workshop in Mumbai but it had to be closed due to labor issues. Sekender has started exporting. “Small exporters like us follow all the rules. Banks and customs are involved. But this new Center policy will only help big exporters with huge working capital,” he says.

In Kulai Sheikh Para, about 15 km from Mullickpole, Sheikh Akhtar Hossain, 46, whose workshop deals with synthetic hair, says: “We supply states like Delhi, Gujarat, Mumbai and Odisha, where the strands of hair are used in plays performed in towns”.

The lockdown has hit them too, says Hossain. First, he could not travel. Then, “in many places the night curfew is in effect and as a result plays and rural theaters have closed.”

He hopes the government will build a hub near a city like Kolkata exclusively for hair. “This will allow us to sell directly to exporters.”

Kolkata-based exporter Sumanta Chakraborty acknowledges that hair smuggling to Bangladesh and China is a problem. “So a proper policy was needed. “Raw hair” is more in demand and is rapidly leaving the country.

Minister for MSMEs, Chandranath Sinha, said they have been approached by small exporters. “They are in crisis after the Center decided to include raw hair in the export list. We are monitoring the situation. »

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