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Tuesday, April 20, 2021

West Bengal polls: At end of their rope, jute workers say Ram, ‘outsider’ not their issues

The once-famed jute industry of Bengal, spread over districts like Hooghly and North 24 Parganas,is battling problems such as finances, inefficiency, labour struggles, causing mills to open and shut at regular intervals.

Written by Dipankar Ghose |
Updated: April 8, 2021 5:45:02 am
Gate of the Gondalpara Jute Mill. (Express Photo)

To the right of a large yellow iron gate that is shut, Vimal Thakur accidentally nicks his customer on the chin, drawing a little blood. As the customer protests, Thakur snaps: “You know you shouldn’t come after 1 pm. My shift starts at 2, and I have to go home and be ready for duty at the mill.”

All Thakur’s barber shop has is a small mirror on an uneven wall and a wooden chair, a legacy of the two years when the Gondalpara Jute Mill was shut for over two years. But even since it reopened to much cheer in October 2020, he has continued to work as a barber when he is off duty at the mill. “Ye mill ka kuchch bharosa nahin hai. Kabhi part-time nai se full-time phir kab banana pade, kuchch nahin pata (There is no guarantee regarding this mill. Who knows when I have to again become a full-time barber from a part-time one),” Thakur says.

Thakurs barber shop right next to the mill.

Across the once-famed jute industry of Bengal, spread over districts like Hooghly and North 24 Parganas, there are struggling mills like Thakur’s. The industry, which provides employment to close to three lakh workers, is battling problems such as finances, inefficiency, labour struggles, causing mills to open and shut at regular intervals. The Gondalpara mill that employed 5,500 workers at its peak before 2009, now employs around 3,500. “They talk of a lockdown these days again. We have had experience of lockdown for years,” Thakur jokes.

Given their numbers though, jute mill workers matter in multiple seats. As part of its push for their votes, BJP president J P Nadda has been eating at workers’ homes in Naihati, along with state chief Dilip Ghosh and senior leader Kailash Vijayvargiya. Barrackpore MP Arjun Singh made similar rounds in February. In October, when the Gondalpara mill reopened, both the BJP and ruling TMC had rushed to take credit.

At the barber shop, customers debate who is more deserving. Pointing out that nobody asked about them when the mill was shut, Tarun laughs, “Didi says it is her government that has revived the industry, and reopened some mills. The BJP says they did it. We will only find out who the people believe on May 2.” He doesn’t blame Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, he adds. “How much will Didi do? But her local representatives didn’t either, and neither did the BJP.”

Gondalpara falls in Chandannagar constituency, which has a TMC MLA. There is a lingering fondness for Mamata, but as is despair at the defunct state of the industry. Shankar Das, who also works at the mill, says, “We love the fact that Didi stands with the poor, and has stood with farmers and mill unions often. She thinks of us. But what Nandigram and Singur have shown, and the past decade, is that she is not good for the industry overall.”

However, the workers are not sure the BJP is the answer. Across mills, workers have issues of provident fund and gratuity dues, low incomes. At the Gondalpara mill for instance, which has a private owner, wages are paid once in two weeks, from Rs 370 a day to Rs 550, depending on work and seniority. Says Das: “That is not enough in these times. Our fight is almost always with the factory maaliks. The unions speak for us, and there are as many as 11 at the Gondalpara mill. Will the BJP listen to workers and unions like Mamata didi does? They believe in industry, but I have heard they only favour the big owners.”

While people here too talk of local-level corruption, the Mamata government’s schemes for the poor, including Rupashree and Kanyashree, and the Duare Sarkaar closer to the elections, are still talked about as positives.

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BJP vans have been crisscrossing the mill area, with loudspeakers blaring chants of ‘Jai Shri Ram’ and ‘Ram lalla aayenge’, amidst appeal for votes, all in Hindi.

Unlike the rest of Bengal, much of the campaigning here is in Hindi, Thakur points out, given the large “Hindustani population”. “I am originally from Chhapra in Bihar. I came here in 2000, and have been here for 21 years. More than 50,000 people here are from Bihar, and some from Uttar Pradesh. Which is why you see Hindi being used.”

About the emphasis on Ram, Shiv Prasad, the man who got nicked in the chin, says this won’t help the BJP. “This is all politics… we are more intelligent than that. We will not get swayed by this Hindu-Muslim business, or the insider-outsider thing either (the TMC’s campaign pitch). Both are wrong. We will decide based on who we think will stand for us and make our future better.”

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