Jute disaster

Print edition : August 05, 2016

Ram Lal Hela, a former jute worker, lying on a charpoy outside his home. Photo: SUHRIR SHANKER CHATTOPADYAY

THE jute industry, once the industrial mainstay of West Bengal, presents a picture of despair today. Although the industry continues to be a source of income for a large number of people—more than 2.5 lakh textile mill workers and around 40 lakh jute farmers—its steady decline is slowly but inexorably ruining those dependent on it for a livelihood. Of the 60 jute mills in the State (including two Central government undertakings), 13 have been shut down as of July 2016, and uncertainty looms over most of the other mills that are still operating.

The jute industry was in trouble long before economic liberalisation began in 1991. The importance of jute as a packaging industry derived its strength from the fact that it is biodegradable and environment friendly in contrast with its primary rival, plastic. But its attraction as an export item started fading with technological advances in packaging and the emergence of new substitutes. This trend further intensified in the early 1990s. The crisis was compounded by the collapse of the Soviet Union, since Ukraine, which was one of the member states of the Union, was a captive market for jute Hessian.

The Jute Packaging Materials Act (JPMC) of 1987 tried to salvage the situation by making it obligatory for the Central government to make compulsory purchase of jute for the packaging of foodgrain, sugar, fertilizer and cement. Repeated dilution of the Act in later years removed cement and fertilizers from the purview of the Act. Thereafter, the requirement of jute for packing foodgrain and sugar was minimised. The very concept of protecting a declining industry is anathema to the principles of globalisation. An industry source said: “If the Congress-led United Progressive Alliance government was indifferent to the problem, the Narendra Modi-led National Democratic Alliance government is no better. The synthetic industry is getting greater encouragement at the expense of jute.”

The Wellington Jute Mill, the oldest jute mill in the country, established in 1856 at Rishra in Hooghly district, closed down on March 26, sealing the fate of its 3,000-odd workers and their families. In its work suspension notice, the management stated that acute shortage of raw jute and 65 hands per tonne [hpt] in productivity had made it impossible for the mill to continue production. The standard hpt in the industry is 39. Work had been shrinking in the mill since 2013, and around 800 workers were sitting idle as there was not enough production for all of them. Along with the decrease in output, the number of working hours and days had come down, reducing the workers’ earnings. With the minimum daily wage fixed at Rs.258 for eight hours of work, workers could hardly save anything. With no wages paid for the last three months, the workers are facing a bleak future.

The workers’ quarters on the factory premises lie in a state disrepair. Some portions of the quarters look deserted as many workers have left in search of work. The total workforce in the mill was 4,500; it dwindled to 3,000-odd over the years). Those who opted to remain hoping for the best had their hopes dashed.

Lalita Devi, mother of Rakesh Kumar Jaiswara, said: “We could barely make ends meet when there was work, but now we cannot afford milk for my infant grandson.” With the other jute mills in the region either closed or on the verge of closure, Rakesh and other workers of the Wellington Jute Mill are finding it increasingly difficult to get even casual labour outside.

Ganesh Sahu, 55, who was employed in the mill for the past three decades, is afraid that his children may be asked to leave school as he has no money to pay the fees. Sahu is already in debt and is jobless. “This [the closure of the mill] is affecting not only our lives but also our dignity,” he said. The local shops are now wary of giving the jobless workers essential commodities on credit, unlike earlier. College-going children of the workers are now thinking of abandoning their studies in order to find work to support their families.

Ashish Chatterjee’s 10-year-old daughter discontinued her dance lessons as he could not afford the fee. “I cannot bear to see her look sad. She is talented. But I am helpless,” he said. Md Nasim Ahmed, general secretary of the Bengal Chatkal Mazdoor Union of the Wellington mill, said most of the workers could not give their children new clothes for Eid.

It is not just the workers who are saddened by the plight of their children. Family members of some workers watch helplessly as their fathers or husbands slowly break down mentally and physically. Ram Lal Hela lay on a charpoy outside his ramshackle quarters, too ill to speak. His wife, Rukmini, and daughter, Rani, silently watch over him as they do not have the means to buy medicines.

The Trinamool Congress, which returned to power in the Assembly elections held in April/May, seems to have forgotten about the plight of the mill workers. The workers claim that local Trinamool Congress leaders did not bother to enquire about their condition. “Before the elections, at a tripartite meeting held between representatives of workers’ unions, the mill management and the State government, the government asked the management to restart operations. Now we know it was all play-acting,” a worker remarked.

Suhrid Sankar Chattopadhyay

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