Bengal jute mills wait for government nod to resume work and meet demand for sacks

Published : April 11, 2020 15:42 IST

Inside a jute mill in West Bengal. A file picture. Photo: Arunangsu Roy Chowdhury

The jute industry in West Bengal, with its 2.5 lakh workers, is facing distress owing to the nationwide lockdown to tackle the spread of COVID-19. Although the jute industry falls under the Essential Commodities (EC) Act, the Government of West Bengal has not allowed jute mills in the State to continue with their operations. With the mills remaining shut, there is likely to be an acute shortage of jute bags for transporting and storing agricultural produce; and with the boro crop approaching harvesting, farmers may face serious problems.

“We have been under lockdown since the 23rd of March. Even though the government orders say that the manufacturing units that fall under the EC Act should be allowed to operate, yet the State government has preferred to include jute mills in the lockdown. This is the time when the Rabi harvesting is done and the requirement of jute bags is the most, so the procuring agencies – be it the FCI (Food Corporation of India) or the State – are suffering for the lack of bags,” Raghav Gupta, president of the Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA), told Frontline.

A lot of the orders for jute bags are now being diverted to the plastic industry, which has been exempted from the lockdown. However, farmers and agricultural workers prefer to store their produce in jute bags rather than in plastic, as the former allows the crops to breathe. The Additional Secretary, Ministry of Consumer Affairs, Food &Public Distribution, had written to the West Bengal Chief Secretary:

“Procurement operation of food grains, for which availability of packaging material, i.e. jute bales, are immediately required by major procuring States like Punjab, Haryana, Uttar Pradesh, and Madhya Pradesh, where procurement operations are scheduled to start w.e.f. the month of April, 2020. Further the peak procurement lasts for about 2-3 weeks only. Therefore, it is of utmost importance that jute mills immediately resume their operations for manufacturing/dispatch of jute bales to meet the requirements of State Procurement Agencies/FCI.” According to the letter, 6.1 lakh bales of jute bags are required to meet the demands of the Rabi marketing season, which may increase too.

The IJMA has also written to both the Centre and the State government seeking exemption from the lockdown. There are 61 operational jute mills in West Bengal, and, according to Raghav Gupta, the industry produces around 3,000 tonnes of jute goods a day. “We have already lost close to 65,000 tonnes of production (as of April 11),” said Gupta.

Though the IJMA has claimed that the wages of all the workers were cleared till the day the lockdown started, the jute workers, who earn on an average Rs.300-Rs.550 a day, the lockdown is turning out to be a particularly difficult period. Mohammad Naseem Ahmad of Wellington Jute Mill, who earns a little over Rs.400 a day, said that most of the workers of the mill have run out of money and are somehow making do by borrowing money from outside. “We have not been getting any money from the management since the lockdown. They have not even given us any loans to tide us through. All of us are having to survive on loans from outside the mill complex,” Naseem, who has a family of four to support, told Frontline. “How long can we expect people from outside to loan us money? In the lockdown most of them do not have any income either.”

What is immediately required for the jute industry is permission from the State to resume operations, said Gupta. “We have hired PwC (Pricewaterhouse Coopers) to set the protocol of safe distancing and other safety norms like hand sanitization, etc. They are preparing a report for us on the standard operating procedure to be followed post lockdown,” said Gupta.