Nepali handmade paper factories in Gandaki face existential crisisLack of government support in production and marketisation amid a decline in the use of such paper has forced factories to shut down, local entrepreneurs say.
Handmade paper, manufactured mostly in the rural areas of the country and used mostly in government offices, is facing an existential crisis.
The factories, generally equipped with manually operated machines, in Myagdi, Baglung and Parbat districts of Gandaki province provide jobs to locals. But the Covid-19 pandemic pushed many of these factories, already reeling with marketisation issues and operational difficulties, to shut down.
Until three years ago, Himanchal hand-made paper factory at Nagi in Annapurna Rural Municipality-8, Myagdi, had a decent customer flow.
Travellers visiting the area mostly bought notebooks, paper bags, envelopes and other items made of Nepali handmade paper..
But the factory shut down after a plunge in demand when tourist flow ceased.
Dhorpatan Handicraft at Lulang in Dhaulagiri Rural Municipality-2 and Dhaulagiri Handmade Paper at Devisthan in Malika Rural Municipality-4 in Myagdi, too, have both gone out of business.
Dwindling market demand has made it difficult to continue operating the paper factories established to promote local production, entrepreneurs say.
Moti Raj Gautam, proprietor of Malika Paper at Aadiwara in Malika Rural Municipality-3, said that it has become more difficult with each passing day to keep the factory operational amid extensive competition with cheaper products made by mixing banana stem with recycled paper.
“Though we still have customers who prefer hand-made paper for their quality, it is tough for us to compete with big and advanced factories,” said Gautam, who argues all three tiers of government as well as traders need to promote the use of handmade paper if they seriously intend to preserve and promote the factories producing them.
The artisans collect tree bark from mid-December to mid-February and begin the process of converting them into paper.
The factories also buy the bark from locals at the rate of Rs50 per kg.
“The bark needs to be collected before the new shoots begin to appear,” said Gautam. “We have been busy collecting and processing it at the moment.”
The factory produces around 1,500 sheets of paper on a sunny day.
According to Nar Bahadur Chhetri, deputy forest officer at Division Forest Office, Myagdi, the community and national forests in the district have the capacity to produce 10 tonnes of bark in a season.
Each household at Taman village in Taman Khola Rural Municipality-3, Baglung, used to produce handmade paper three decades ago. It was a stable source of income for locals.
The colourful paper was also manufactured in the factories at Kothe Khola Rural Municipality-8.
Marketisation was not an issue then as traders and customers used to come to our doorstep to buy the products, locals say.
But the demand for handmade paper produced at both places declined over the years with reduced usage.
After the production came to a halt around five years ago, locals of Taman started moving to the cities for employment.
The Federation of Nepalese Chambers of Commerce and Industry had enlisted Myagdi as a key producer of handmade paper under its ‘One district-One Product’ programme in the fiscal year 2014-15.
The labour migration has also created a shortage of manpower for the factories which are still operating.
“While the market has shrunk, we do not have enough employees to collect the bark,” said Dil Bahadur Darji, a local of Lekhani. “Many artisans have migrated after suffering financial losses.”
Prem Kala Budhathoki, a local who was once in the business said that she switched to weaving Dhaka cloth after a drop in the demand for handmade paper.
Some manufacturers at Tara Khola Rural Municipality argue that marketisation was a bigger issue than production, complaining, “The Chamber of Commerce and Industries in Baglung failed to market the locally made paper.”
“We have not received enough support in marketing our products,” said Harka Bahadur Gharti, another local from Tara Khola, who along with his five partners has been manufacturing the paper despite the difficulties.
Though the Office of the Cottage and Small Scale Industry has also been a partner in strategic planning, it has not supported the marketing of the paper in any manner, according to locals.
Guma Devi Rijal, chief of the office, said that the office has not included any programmes related to handmade paper production.
“We provide the training as per the demand of the locals,” said Rijal. “There’s no considerable interest among locals towards the paper industry due to the absence of a market.”
Rajan Kumar Shakya, vice president of Baglung Industry and Commerce Association, stated that the association had allocated a budget for the promotion of handmade paper for the first two years after enlisting the district as the key producer of handmade papers.
“Local products can compete in the market only if we are able to provide advanced machines to the villagers,” said Shakya.
Tara Khola Rural Municipality has also included the hand-made paper industry in its policy to promote entrepreneurship at a local level but locals are drawn more towards other businesses like weaving Dhaka cloth.
“However, the programme has failed to attract youths primarily due to the absence of a market,” said Dhan Bahadur BK, chairman of Tara Khola Rural Municipality.
Despite high demand, the production of hand-made paper has stalled in Parbat due to the high initial investment and hassles in the authorisation of collecting, processing and transporting the tree bark, resulting in the closure of native paper industries.
Bal Bahadur Chhetri of Bhangra at Phalewas Municipality-9 in Parbat started manufacturing paper at Katuwa Chaupari in Kusma Municipality-9 around 14 years ago.
But Chhetri left the industry altogether as troubles in bark collection and transportation kept increasing and human resources kept decreasing in the following years.
“Despite support from all parties in the initial years, the bark started getting scarcer and costlier, so I switched to another business,” said Chhetri.