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The decline of Kallai’s timber industry

By Zenobia Khaleel

KOZHIKODE: As one gazes down the Kallai Bridge to the listless river below, the log strewn water, the floating debris, and the overcrowded banks paint a sorry picture that belies Kallai’s glorious past and the focal part it played in shaping the commercial landscape of Calicut. In its long sustained heyday, the Kallai timber industry was second only to Canada in terms of quality and quantity. Till the 1970s, around 300 wood processing units (sawmills) operated on the Kallai banks, employing more than 20,000 workers in various capacities.

The lush biodiversity of Wayanad on the north, the magnificent teak plantations of Nilambur on the south, together with the all-encompassing connectivity through the canals of Malabar and accessibility to the whole wide world through the legendary Beypore port, helped Kallai become the nerve center of the timber market on the state, national and international stage.

Centuries ago, the foreign traders who landed in the nearby Beypore port in search of silk and spices, discovered a treasure trove of premium quality wood in the vicinity to repair their wooden vessels. As the timber from Malabar gained popularity in the foreign markets, timber depots emerged on the Kallai river banks creating a new industry in the area.

The visionary wood traders of yesteryear Malabar played a huge part in the development of the trade. Back in the 18th and 19th centuries, the traders spent their youth in the forests getting apprenticed in wood craft. With their firsthand knowledge of forestry, they created an exclusive system for felling, measuring and trading of lumber, known as “marakanaku” or the mathematics related to trees.

Capitalizing on the shortage of lumber in European markets during World War 1, these traders started exporting wood to Europe. Business expanded meteorically as Kallai started exporting wood to the Arab, Far eastern and European countries. History books denote that wood from the region has been used in the construction of the Buckingham Palace and the fleet at Waterloo.

In 1913, the Band Saw Mill was established in Kallai which has the capacity to cut up to 10 cubic meters of wood at a time which enhanced productivity further. Labour was systematically divided for measuring, hauling, sawing and quality control of wood. “Moopen” — the overseer — was in charge of labour management and the security of timber which was stored floating on the riverbanks.

Kunji Moopen, a veteran worker, reminisces those golden days of Kallai: the three-shift work days resonating with the mill sirens, heavy thuds of the gigantic logs and the rhythmic chants of the labourers as they transported the logs. Massive logs of 50 feet and more were bound to make river rafts and workers called “kumalis” punted these rafts to the mills. Folklore prevailed that the saline waters of Kallai endued the wood with strength.

The proximity of the railroads to the river was an added bonus that worked in Kallai’s favor, as logs were loaded from the river to the wagons by cranes; but the biggest feather in its cap was the credibility it enjoyed with its clients, due to the unparalleled quality and fair pricing. “No client went away from Kallai unsatisfied,” boasts the Moopen.

The international shipments were transported by wooden dhows which facilitated a sister concern — the Dhow industry — to flourish along the Beypore coast. This symbiotic commercial relationship between the Beypore port and the Kallai saw mills continued for ages.

The stringent deforestation laws of the ’70s set in motion the downward spiral of the timber trade. The nationalization of private forests in 1971 and a ban on tree felling from forest reserves were harsh blows that cut off the lifeline of the trade. Scarcity of quality raw materials lead to illegal felling of trees and steep inflation in prices from unscrupulous dealers. Kallai lost one of its prime clients, when the Indian Railways diversified from its wooden sleepers to concrete.

Eventually, Kallai had to rely on international imports from Malaysia and Africa to sustain its saw mills. The international shipments favored the bigger, industrialized ports at Mangalore and Tuticorin where import duty was lower. Logistic sense dictated that the timber got processed in areas enroute their destination, and in the process Kallai sawmills got bypassed.

Sharing his insight on the decline of the trade, P.T. Mohamed Ali, vice president of Timber Merchants Association, and owner of Junior Timbers, states that the old order of measurements and trade based solely on mutual trust has faded away. As the floating of cargo in the rivers gave way to road transportation through trucks, the expenditure hiked up astronomically. The steady increase in VAT (value added tax), incessant taxation, bureaucratic hassles at the check-posts, and unrealistic demands of the trade unions proved unbearable for the middle order businessmen who eventually dropped out of the race. Today hardly 30 saw mills operate in Kallai and the timber output which was 2 lakh cubic metres of logs per year has decreased to 5000 cubic metres.

The Timber Merchants Association was formed to address the concerns of the traders and revive the fortunes of the timber trade. Mohamed Ali states that the major milestones of the Association has been to relax the import ban on timber as well as the ban on felling trees from private reserves. They also provide financial support to families direly affected by the decline of the trade.

Development of the Beypore port is a significant step which will throw a lifeline to this deteriorating trade. The renovation of the port to meet international standards, which can accommodate larger imports of timber will divert shipments from other major ports to Kallai.

The bottom line is that the efforts to revive the timber trade should be accompanied by forest conservation. A thriving timber industry may be vital for the development of Malabar, but not at the cost of depleting its rich natural vegetation.

Dr. Kunhamu, Associate Professor at College of Forestry, and an avid agro forester, sees enormous potential in the utilization of private homesteads and agro forests for procuring timber. Presently, only 32 percent of the timber comes from homesteads. He feels that the government should promote policies that encourage tree farming in non-forested areas, which will reduce the dependency on imported timber.

While there is no magic bullet that solves both sides of the equation, scientific and responsible agroforestry, will provide a boost to the diminishing timber trade with minimum impact on the carbon footprint. (Global India Newswire)

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