Neither hair nor there

Sahabuddin Mullick, 46, sits near the door of a 12 foot by 10 ft room, comb in hand, brushing the strands of hair atop a wooden bust. Others in the room are weaving hair into a patch of cloth to make a wig.

“Lockdown was a nightmare. Business is yet to pick up, and then there are the touts and middlemen. Our entire 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 about 20 youths in the workshop he runs out of his home in Mullickpole village in Howarh, about 60 km from Kolkata.

Now has come another blow. On January 25, the Centre imposed restrictions on exports, on the demand of the hair industry, to check smuggling. Now an exporter needs a permission or licence from the Directorate General of Foreign Trade.

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

During April-November this fiscal, hair exports stood at USD 144.26 million, a huge jump from USD 15.28 million in 2020-21. West Bengal is among the highest contributors to this, with some estimates putting its share at more than 50% of the exports.

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

Mullick procures raw hair and, after processing, sells it to middlemen, who in turn sell it to exporters. “I used to sell 200 packets of processed human hair per month (each packet is around 1 kg). My unit shut down for a year following the 2020 lockdown and I had to take loans to retain my workers. Now my sales are down to 20 packets a month.”

The routine involves agents collecting or buying hair from households and temples, and bringing them to the workshops. Many women in these parts save hair they shed while combing, and every four-five months, an agent buys it off them. Hair donated in temples in the south also makes its way here.

Depending on quality, hair can sell from Rs 500 to up to Rs 5,000 per kg. The price varies as per length. A kilogram of 50-inch good human hair can sell for about Rs 90,000 to Rs 1.10 lakh. It’s the processing that makes the difference, with processed hair selling for nearly double the rate for regular hair.

Processing involves untangling the hair, shampooing it and sometimes dying it. Then it is stored (in wooden boxes with iron nails), pulled constantly for hours for further untangling and smoothness. Village households also do the untangling, for a price.

Shuvendu Dolui, 19, has been working with Mullick for five years. With an expert’s ease, he points out the “50 types of wooden busts, for different head shapes” for wigs.

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

One unit here though has had its brush with big time, having supplied wigs and hair pieces for Bollywood and Tollywood as well as the TV industry. Sheikh Ali Hossain, 70, started his business 50 years ago with his father. “We then collected hair from middlemen, processed it and made wigs… I have personally travelled with Bengali film stars like Biswajit Chatterjee and Soumitra Chatterjee.

Hossain’s sons Sabir Ali and Sekender Ali have now taken up the business. Sabir says they built a workshop in Mumbai but it had to be shut due to labour problems. Sekender has ventured into exports. “Small exporters like us follow all the rules. Banks and Customs are involved. But this new policy of the Centre will only help the big exporters with huge working capital,” he says.

At Kulai Sheikh Para, about 15 km from Mullickpole, Sheikh Akhtar Hossain, 46, whose workshop deals in synthetic hair, says, “We supply to states like Delhi, Gujarat, Mumbai and Odisha, where the hair pieces are used in plays performed in villages.”

The lockdown hit them too, says Hossain. First, he couldn’t travel. Then, “at many places night curfew is on and therefore rural plays and theatres have closed down”.

He hopes the government builds a hub near a city such as Kolkata exclusively for hair. “It will enable us to directly sell to exporters.”

Kolkata-based exporter Sumanta Chakraborty agrees smuggling of hair to Bangladesh and China is an issue. “So, a proper policy was needed. ‘Raw hair’ is in more demand and leaves the country fast.”

MSME Minister Chandranath Sinha says small exporters had approached them. “They are in crisis after the Centre decided to include raw hair in the export list. We are monitoring the situation.”

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