India's human hair industry grapples with government export ban

Collecting hair for wigs has become a multi-billion dollar global business

An Indian doctor assists a woman cancer patient (L) to try on a wig donated by a health care company during an event as part of International Women's Day celebrations at Kidwai Cancer Institute in Bangalore on March 7, 2015. AFP Photo
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For several years, Satwan Kumar has been bartering crisps and candy floss for tufts of hair collected from women in the northern Indian town of Kasgunj.

Mr Kumar, 18, is one of many hair collectors in India who roam villages and towns to gather the human hair that is raw material for making wigs for the multi-billion dollar world fashion industry.

The restriction will help revive the industry as the raw material would be available to all the manufacturers. We will become a finished product country
Sunil Eamani, hair industry advocate

Since January, his business has been hit after the Indian government imposed restrictions on the export of human hair, part of an industrial policy to boost the local wig-making industry.

“My business is almost dead. My profit has halved because there are no takers for the raw material,” Mr Kumar told The National.

The teenager from Uttar Pradesh state learnt the trade from his father and elder brother as a child.

With no formal education or occupational training, it was lucrative work compared to hard labour.

Many women in India do not throw their fallen hair away in the belief that tresses are a part of their body and they preserve them according to age-old traditions.

India is one of the leading suppliers of human hair for wigs for the fashion industry and people suffering from conditions such as alopecia or hair loss through chemotherapy.

During last April and November, India’s hair exports were worth $145 million, a huge jump from $15.28m in the previous year, according to government data, with China a major export market.

In pictures: China's wig factories

Much of the exported hair comes from scores of temples, where female pilgrims tonsure their heads – clipping hair as a religious gesture for Hindu deities.

The hair, known as Remy hair, fetches high prices and is known for its quality as most of the donors come from rural areas where use of hair artificial beauty products is less common.

Hair derived from salons is not used in the industry as clippings are too short, increasing demand for naturally fallen or "virgin" hair that hawkers such as Mr Kumar collect from door-to-door.

Depending on the quality and the length, the hawkers buy the hair for 2,000 rupees ($26) a kilogram, which is sold to dealers for 6,000 rupees.

The hawkers make anywhere between 15,000 and 20,000 rupees a month.

Most of the hair ends up in the eastern part of West Bengal state’s thriving cottage industry, where workers untangle the clumps, wash it and straighten it.

Once ready, the raw hair, called “goli”, is flown around the world, mostly smuggled to China, where it is used in wigs, extension braids and curls.

But the government restrictions on exports of human hair – in part to address smuggling – have severely affected the small vendors and cottage industries as demand and rates paid for hair have fallen.

“Dealers are offering 3,000 rupees for a kilogram of hair. Our income has been slashed by half,” Mr Kumar said.

Local industry protection

But supporters of the government move say that the new rules will help to streamline hair exports, mandating licences for trading and helping to end smuggling.

They allege a large portion of the hair was illegally exported under the guise of other products, which deprived the local industry of raw material and damaged manufacturing capacity.

Sunil Eamani, a member of the Human Hair and Hair Products Manufacturers and Exporters Association of India who led the effort against smuggling, said the restrictions will help to revive the industry as the raw materials will remain in the country.

“At least 80 to 90 per cent of global human hair collected is from India as it is the biggest raw material supply source, but because of smuggling, we were losing our raw material,” Mr Eamani told The National.

“The restriction will help revive the industry as the raw material would be available to all the manufacturers. We will become a finished product country."

However, hawkers such as Mr Kumar and traders like Sikander Ali are not convinced as they believe the new laws will allow a monopoly and a glut of raw hair.

Mr Ali, 35, runs a third-generation hair exports company in Howrah in West Bengal.

His company deals in manufacturing of hair wigs and hair patches mainly used in the regional film industry and sold domestically, but it also exports limited quantities of raw materials.

“Government has banned raw hair, but who is buying it? Myanmar, Bangladesh and China and these countries will never buy our complete products because they have their factories and require raw material,” Mr Ali told The National.

“I welcome the move because it will help stop smuggling, but not every exporter was smuggling,” he said.

Mr Ali also pointed out that small manufacturing units like his where 100 workers are employed are not enough to finish all the raw material.

“Earlier, we exported the raw material left after making the wigs. We don’t have that level of workforce and infrastructure to complete all the raw materials.

"Expansion would require capital and if we fail to do so, we will face loss due to increased competition in the market,” Mr Ali said.

Updated: February 22, 2022, 12:58 PM