Flash Back: Point Counterpoint: The golden fibre (watch exclusive video)

Flash Back: Point Counterpoint: The golden fibre (watch exclusive video)

IN recent weeks much has been written about the “collapse” of the jute industry in Bangladesh, including heart-rending reports detailing the human tragedy in the jute mills in Khulna.

This collapse relates to the financial non-viability and the eventual closure of the publicly owned jute mills. Writings have been published describing motley causes of this malaise, including one from the country director of the World Bank.

While these writings have described the tragic and the unwarranted situation, nothing concrete has been written about how the jute industry can turn around except for a very gutsy but mysterious claim by the industries advisor that the jute industry will turn around in three years.

How people are responding to the jute debacle is dictated by their own background. Writers and social commentators are detailing the human trauma of the jute industry workers, left-wing intellectuals are blaming the World Bank for the malaise, and economists are seeking its salvation from the private sector.

Watch Dr Abed Chaudhury with NTV in 2007 Courtesy PriyoBangladesh.com

For Bangladeshis, jute is not just a plant that produces fibre; it is rather a national icon, linked to the adage: Sonar Bangla. It was also linked to our quest for economic emancipation. In mythical golden Bengal, around which much of our national lore is constructed, we have undulating rice fields together with a field of fibre, both golden.

This adage has a justifiable history. In the early days of Pakistan due to the high demand of jute during the Korean war, jute obtained an instant international market, thus saving the fledgling state of Pakistan from economic ruin.

In those days Pakistan was involved in bitter dispute with India regarding the sharing of foreign currency reserve. Pakistan, with precipitous decline in foreign reserve, had found in jute a pathway to survival. And it was all due to the contribution of flood-drenched delta and its toiling masses who supplied this fibre. Quite rightly this issue became a pertinent slogan during Bangabandhu’s question to Pakistanis: Sonar Bangla shoshan keno? or: Why is the golden Bengal now a graveyard?

While it is interesting to ponder on these historic events, it is also important to ponder how indeed jute might turn around and how we can facilitate the change. Precious little has been written by people who know jute as an organism, commenting on its limitations and promise. Central to any future planning to turn the jute sector around should be an emphasis on the genetics of jute and an attempt to turn things around with the help of genomic technology.

Jute has a huge genome, at 1,200 megabases, roughly 3 times that of rice. But in recent years the cost of gene sequencing has come down, and at the current rate to have the jute genome sequenced with high precision will cost about $2 million dollars or roughly Taka 14 crores. While this amount is not small, it is a pittance compared to the amount that government is recovering from individuals who have amassed wealth through unfair means.

It has been suggested that government should utilise these recovered wealth to build bridges, hospitals, etc. A far more pertinent and exciting use of a fraction of that money would be to have the genome of jute sequenced. The whole operation can be outsourced to an efficient international organisation and the people of Bangladesh can have the genomic information available to them.

How might such an information lead to new development? A major trait that needs to be manipulated for jute is its fibre length and fibre quality. A finer fibre, fibre of many colours and strength, fibre of various levels of strength are needed to extend the range of products that can be made with jute.

A combination of the knowledge of the jute genomic sequences together with mutational analyses will pave a way towards this development. Such a modern research platform will also be highly sought after by other jute-producing nations such as India. This is an area in which Bangladesh can become a leader by investing very little.

Instead of bemoaning the current situation and blaming each other endlessly, we can take a solid stand and declare that in Bangladesh a genomic era of jute has begun. The current government can think of innovative ways of raising funds for the purpose including money to be made available from businessmen who might want to whiten their black money. I cannot think of a more exciting way of legalising dubious money.

In this venture people of all sections, including the expatriates, can also join in order to pay tribute to a national symbol. Together we can raise enough money to have the jute genome sequenced. Afterwards and after due considerations of intellectual property the genomic information can be made available in the Internet to humanity on behalf of the people of Bangladesh.

Many years ago, in all our pledges and aspirations we had congregated around a fibrous plant as one of the symbols of our national identity. Time has now come to redeem that pledge.

Abed Chaudhury, 1st Published On: 2008-03-23

How Jute Geonome projecct unfolded related link at

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