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Why Bengal’s jute industry is hanging by a thread

A look at how the jute industry in Bengal, which once paved the way for industrialisation in the state, has slowly disintegrated into chaos.

Workers at a mill in Hooghly Workers at a mill in Hooghly

Amidst the primarily agrarian setting of Kolkata’s outskirts, cavernous sheds built in the 1800s reverberate with the drone of machines as they press jute fibre into thread. On most days, gaunt men and women go about lifting bales of raw jute, feeding them to the machines and sorting them into yarns. But now, four of the mills stand empty, their entrances locked, following the murder of HK Maheshwari, the CEO of the Northbrook Jute Mill in Hooghly’s Bhadreshwar. On June 14, Maheshwari was beaten to death by factory workers demanding an increase in weekly working hours that would have allowed them more pay. In the aftermath of the murder, the lockout has put the 3,500 odd temporary and permanent workers at Northbrook out of a livelihood.

At the Phasua Bagan workers’ colony nearby, Dalu Singh, 60, leads us through muddy lanes to her one-room quarter where her ailing husband is sleeping on a charpoy. Once inside, she breaks down in tears. “The police took my son, Swapan, away on June 15. He is a durwan (guard) with the Northbrook jute mill and had finished his shift by 10.30 am. The incident happened later in the day. How can they blame him?” she asks.

The air reeks of fear at the colony which is inhabited mostly by jute mill workers of the area. The community tap is close to a flowing drain, the roofs perch perilously over the shanty and the padlocks on most Northbrook employee quarters are telling (“They have left for their village in Bihar”). Ganesh Chaudhury, 65, who worked with the Northbrook jute mill as the headmaster of their in-house school till early 2014, says he hasn’t received his gratuity yet. “Things have been steadily going bad with the place for a long time. The mill was closed for some time a few months ago. What are the workers supposed to do?” he asks.

“What are the owners supposed to do?” echoes Kalyan Mitra, CEO, Samnuggur Jute Factory, Bhadreshwar, sitting in his office in the sprawling mill. Mitra has been in the business for more than 33 years and says things have gone from bad to worse. “There is no denying that this is a dying industry, and to top it all, there are 20 different trade unions in our factory with various demands,” says Mitra.

Jute bales being carried away Jute bales being carried away

Jute mills, however, were the foundational premise of the industrialisation in Bengal in the 19th century. “Calcutta in the late 19th century was a vast and thriving city. New investments in various industrial activities transformed the hitherto rural riverside regions of Howrah, Hooghly and 24 Parganas into a highly urbanised and densely populated area. Pivotal to this process of industrial activity was the growth of the jute industry. Jute mills stretched over an area of 20 miles, along the banks of Hooghly, both north and south of the city,” says Subho Basu of McGill University, Montreal, Canada ,who has worked extensively on workers’ resistance movements in Bengal.

The growth of the industry was closely related to the expanding international trade that flourished after 1850. In fact, the word “jute” first made its entry into the English language through the logbooks of the 18th century British ships. Used for commercial purposes, jute was derived from the bust of a fibrous plant known as pat which was only cultivated in eastern and northern Bengal in colonial times. “This is important because the industry provided backward-forward linkages with peasant agriculture and it was through the trade of jute that colonial capital penetrated into the countryside,” says Basu. Thus, the industry provided life support not only to workers but peasants as well. Unlike Mumbai, the mills of Bengal had a primarily male work force who came from all over Bengal and the adjoining states of Bihar and Orissa. The industry flushed money into Kolkata and created a new set of gentry — the jute barons, mostly Marwari businessmen, who had a large stake in the city’s economy.

During that period, the jute mill belt was confined to six miles on both sides of the Hooghly. By 1912, there were 61 factories in this region employing nearly 2,00,000 workers. By 1945, the industry reached its height, employing over 3,50,000 workers with 85 factories operating in the region. Today, possibly 2,50,000 workers are employed in roughly 52 factories. Most of the abandoned mills lie unused, festering ghost stories like the one in Serampore. Some, like the picturesque Agarpara mill are occasionally used for film shoots, as it was by Mani Ratnam for his Aishwarya Rai-Abhishek Bachchan-starrer Raavan in 2009.

The decline of the jute industry began with the growing popularity of plastic in the mid-1960s, but the history of jute mills in Bengal has always been entrenched in violence. “From the beginning, labour unrest occurred in the industry. Violence and intimidation were part of enforcing discipline among workers and the labour force retaliated whenever an occasion arose. There were five general strikes in the industry between 1929 and 1971. By then, the industry was declining. Jute bags, which were cheap, lost their price advantage to plastic. The Partition of India also led to the rise of new industrial complexes in Dhaka which used more advanced technology and, thus, outstripped the Indian industry in competition,” says Basu. The jute industry, in fact, has been limping along because of government-generated demands. “We generally supply sacks to the government. That is our market, if you can call it so,” says Mitra of Samnuggur.

Between 1967 and 1969, with the steady rise of Naxalism in the state, labour unrest in Bengal had reached its peak. It led to the rise in the wages of the workers who were employed permanently but did not improve the condition of the daily employees. The industry remained sick and by 1977, when the Left Front came to power in Bengal, it was acknowledged that the industry had little capacity to generate new demands or rescue its workforce from impoverishment. “The industry could have received some external boost in terms of demands during the two Gulf Wars as wars require bags to carry sand. But Left unions characterised the wars as imperialist and refused to exploit the opportunity,” says Basu.

After the Northbrook murder, Mamata Banerjee, the West Bengal chief minister, met with industrialists to assure them of her government’s non-tolerance for militant trade unionism. For decades now, central and state governments have promised revitalisation of the industry but have done little in practice. Since 1921, workers have demanded two things: job security and stable wages. But they have been denied both. Skilled workers earn roughly Rs 250 per day, and the rest about Rs 150 per day. “I used to earn Rs 157 for my eight-hour shift. I have been a badlee at Northbrook for seven years,” says Chandan Choudhury, a temporary worker. Moreover, the workers refuse to acknowledge the idea that what they are doing for a living may soon become obsolete.

Scholars like Basu, however, believe that the industry can still be sufficiently resuscitated. The fact that the jute factories, located on both banks of the Ganga occupy prime real estate land, are protected by an industrial land protection legislation, is of vital importance. “It prevents the conversion of the land occupied by factories into real estate. Now, the factories can exploit the fact that jute constitutes biodegradable material and is used in making curtains, carpets and carrier bags. There exists crucial technological expertise in the Serampore Regional Engineering college that provides training in textile designs. But this requires massive investment in new technology,” says Basu.

Kashiram Manna, 70, a supervisor with the Samnuggur Jute Factory, who has been in the industry for 47 years feels that it’s time for reinvention. “I have seen many mills close down and I can tell you that unless we change with the times, we will soon be a lost cause,” he says.

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