Last year India exported more than $770 million worth of human hair, twice as much as it did in 2020. Indian hair is apparently prized because most Indians cannot afford the harsh chemicals that dominate the hair grooming industry worldwide. The result is hair that is malleable and can be curled and straightened at will. I was amazed to discover that India is only part of a worldwide market for wigs and hair extensions which reached $5.8 billion in 2021.
Every day between 60,000 and 75,000 pilgrims arrive at the Tirumala Temple in southern India. About half come just to marvel at the sanctum of Lord Venkateswara, but the other half come to have their heads shaved as well. They believe that this ritual tonsure, sacrificing their hair, will bring good health, career progression or other divine favours. 1300 barbers, working around the clock, perform this service to 1.2 million heads every year. That’s a lot of hair. In 2019, the Temple auctioned off a staggering 157 tonnes of hair, earning itself $1.6 million.
Most of the hair from Tirumala, as well as hair from many other similar temples across India, ends up in West Bengal, which isthe center of India’s hair industry. At the village of Baniban Jagadishpur, workers untangle, shampoo and sort hair before weaving it into wigs of various shapes and sizes. Sekendar Ali, a wig maker, boasts that he has many customers who request wigs just for their wedding day in order to look ten years younger. However, many of these customers end up keeping the wigs for life, and buying more.
I have to wonder if the “ten-years younger” effect continues or whether the age differential actually grows, but I digress, and I risk strenuous persecution for even asking the question!?
This may seem like a rather benign, if rapidly expanding, industry but low costs and high profits have always attracted the unscrupulous. Smugglers have mislabeled Indian hair as cotton to avoid Chinese tariffs and, last year, 120 bags of undeclared hair, worth $243,000, were seized by Indian officials at the border with Myanmar. Bangladesh is another favorite destination for Indian hair, where criminal gangs run wig sweatshops.
Last year, India started clamping down on the smugglers by introducing restrictions on the export of human hair. They started requiring traders to seek a license. However, the results have been mixed, at best. What started off as a laudable effort to increase India’s legitimate wig industry, has turned into a process that favours large companies and large, influential, criminal gangs. It has put many small wig makers out of work, particularly because the smaller workshops do not have the “means” (translation: bribe money) to obtain the obligatory export license. Corruption is rampant.
In a different industry, there appears to be a growing, if belated, attempt by the consumers, and distributors, of the rag trade to control the “sweatshops” that produce most of the world’s fashionable, and unfashionable, clothing. Pictures of these “sweatshops” have induced manufacturers, who had previously never gone near their sources, to take an active interest in the working conditions of those that produce their products. It has been a slow, and spasmodic, effort at best but that movement has obviously not yet reached the wig industry.
You would think that a $770 million industry, with even greater potential, would be important enough for India to tighten its regulations governing the collection, processing and manufacturing of human hair into a worldwide commodity like wigs, and the resulting promotion small, entrepreneurial enterprises, would be a priority. One can hope that it becomes one, if only for the small wig makers currently going out of business.