How Not to Create Jobs

Nitin Gadkari’s proposal to make kulhads at tea stalls mandatory is harmful

Nitin Gadkari is one of the best minds in the current Cabinet. Yet, he now seeks to revive an old failed policy. Once, tea in shops was served in kulhads — small throwaway terracotta cups. That gave way to ceramic cups and glasses, which were not thrown away, but needed a lot of water and labour for washing. Today, many vendors have shifted to throwaway paper or plastic cups.

Paper and plastic cups are massproduced by machines. Many more jobs would be created by returning to the use of kulhads, made by village potters. Besides, throwaway paper and plastic cups cause environmental problems. Paper requires the cutting of trees. Plastic waste can clog drains and ruin waterways.

Fit to a Tea

So, Gadkari proposes a win-win-solution: make kulhads at tea stalls compulsory, creating lakhs of jobs in employment-starved villages, while aiding the environment. He has asked Railways minister Piyush Goyal to make kulhads mandatory at 100 railway stations, extend this scheme to all state transport undertakings and airports having tea stalls, and maybe even to shopping malls.

As minister for micro, small and medium industries, Gadkari has promoted the distribution of electric wheels to potters to increase their productivity. The Khadi and Village Industries Commission (KVIC) distributed 10,000 electric wheels last year and has a target of 25,000 for this year. But there is no demand for so many kulhads. They are not favoured by either shopkeepers or customers. So, Gadkari wants to make it mandatory.

Alas, this path has been tried in the past and failed. Back in 1977, industry minister George Fernandes, who insisted ‘small is beautiful’, mandated the use of kulhads in the Railways. He claimed that anything that could be made by small-scale industries should be banned for production by large ones. Decades later, in 2004, Railways minister Lalu Prasad Yadav again mandated the use of kulhads to serve tea in the Railways to increase the employment of poor village potters.

Why did these attempts fail? For the same reason that the use of kulhads at tea shops, once almost universal, died a natural death all over India. Once, labour and clay were so abundant that kulhads cost very little, and so were widely used. But with every passing decade, wages have risen and clay has become scarcer as land values shoot up and places with good clay soil shrink.

Kulhads are made by shaping moist clay into small vessels and then firing these in coal-based kilns to make the vessels ‘pukka’ — strong and waterproof. But this technology cannot produce cups durable enough to be washed and used repeatedly. For that, higher-quality white clay has to be used, shaped mechanically for consistency and glazed in heat-controlled furnaces. This raises production costs, but the durability of these cups made them more cost-effective than kulhads. Hence, the demand for kulhads gradually died.

Gadkari now wants to subsidise potters by distributing electric wheels that can produce far more than traditional manual potter’s wheels. When so many rural subsidies are being dished out, one more does not stand out. But if even with subsidised electric wheels and subsidised rural electricity, there is no demand for kulhads, why artificially create a demand for them by making kulhads mandatory at railway and bus stations?

Storm in a Teacup

Kulhads have bad environmental consequences no less than paper and plastic cups. Agricultural land is shrinking with urbanisation, and land prices have skyrocketed. Clay soils are among the most fertile. They are being diverted to brick production, and that is inescapable since bricks are essential for home-building. But there is no case for digging up thousands of acres of land to produce kulhads for which there is no demand.

Anybody who visits brick kiln sites will be struck by the massive scarring of agricultural land. Clay extraction makes the sites unfit for agriculture after they are mined and abandoned.

Kulhads have additional environmental costs. Firing kulhads in traditional kilns is a very heat-inefficient process compared with firing ceramic cups in controlled furnaces. A significant proportion of kulhads gets broken during firing in kilns. Being brittle, many kulhads also get broken while being transported. This greatly worsens their total energy efficiency.

Used kulhads cannot be recycled. The process of firing in kilns changes the clay structure, which is no longer soft and cannot be re-moulded into fresh kulhads. By contrast, paper cups can be recycled to make fresh paper. Some plastics, notably polyethylene terephthalate (PET), can be recycled to make fresh cups too. Rather than use kulhads, environmental sense requires the use of recyclable cups in the railway and bus stations that are collected after use for recycling.

Millions of passengers drink tea in railway and bus stations every day. If kulhads are made mandatory, and, say, one million kulhads are used and discarded every day, an enormous disposal problem will arise. At a time when solid waste disposal is already a major environmental headache, millions of kulhads will create veritable mountains of additional waste.

The government should be encouraging the production of things people want, not subsidising what they do not want. Is Gadkari listening?

What do you think?