India exports hair but there’s more moolah if it turns to the hair products industry
Human hair can cause hair-raising problems and the Indian Government is waking up to the reality. If India has a commodity that can never become scarce, grows for free, and has the most of it in the world, it is human hair. Yet, India gets no benefit from this asset because it is not the leader of the hair products industry. It is merely an exporter. Between April-November last, hair exports stood at $144.26 million. The pandemic lowered these to $15.28 million in 2020-21. Exports are also hurt by rampant smuggling. Smugglers hire people to collect raw hair and illegally move it in bulk to some East Asian countries. The allegation is the hair is processed there and sent across to China, which makes wigs and hairpieces and exports them for a tidy profit. Hair products manufacturers and the Directorate of Revenue Intelligence could not end smuggling despite best efforts. It is estimated that around 16,000 tonne of human hair are smuggled even now. Finally, the Directorate General of Foreign Trade stepped in this week and placed human hair in the restricted export category. That should help genuine exporters. However, it is time the industry shifted from exporting hair to exporting hair products. There is some talk of improving value addition in export products from India, like wigs and hairpieces, to increase foreign exchange earnings. It has to turn into reality now.
India raises huge quantities — 80 per cent — of the best quality of human hair in the world. All of it is donated, at places of worship. The Tirumala temple is the biggest source in the country. If hair export is banned, India’s exports of hair products can touch $3 billion annually and go up to $6 billion in a few years. Importantly, stopping exports can bring back around 8.6 lakh jobs lost over the last few years and open up new jobs as well. It is not difficult for India to become the leader in the hair industry. But with it comes the responsibility that Indian hair collectors, aggregators, product manufacturers and exporters are unaware of. For instance, the collection of hair from non-temple areas like salons and the villages is not organised at all. Planned collection can earn regular employment for rag-pickers. It can reduce the clogging of hair in pipes and sewers — the biggest contributor to rising plumbing costs. India should have expertise in synthetic hair materials and products to be able to compete with countries that lack natural hair. That the production of polymers, used to make synthetic hair products, leads to several environmental problems is another complication on the way. Indian manufacturers need to speed up research into a key area — the life cycle of hair products. At present, the products have a short life and are deemed disposable. If these are designed for a circular economy where they can be recycled, reconditioned and remanufactured, they can help reduce the demand for hair.