In Mazdoor Line, a cluster of two-room tenements near the Barrackpore Trunk Road in the jute mill hub of Titagarh in North 24-Parganas, 28-year-old Mithun Prajapati points to his wife and two children: “Kya khayega yeh log (what will they eat)?”
A jute mill worker, Prajapati has been without work since March 22 and the lockdown extension has added to his worries. He says the PDS ration is not enough and he is counting on a “little advance” from the mill owner because he has run out of money.
He is not the only one. The Mazdoor Line is home to over 140 families, most with similar complaints of little or no money in hand, hoping for an “advance”.
The gloom is pervasive, enveloping worker settlements across North 24 Parganas — in Titagarh, Barrackpore, Kanchrapara, Naihati and Halisahar. This is one district from where India sources its jute bags, always in great demand for grains to be packed during harvesting.
On April 14, Union Textiles Minister Smriti Irani wrote to Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee, urging her to operationalise 18 jute mills identified by the Centre to deal with the shortage of bags for packing food grains. The state government subsequently allowed all jute mills to reopen with the condition that they use 15 per cent of their workforce, ensure social distancing and other protective norms.
But owners say that running mills with 15 per cent staff and maintaining social distancing is difficult. Moreover, most mills fall near red zones and are staring at a longer lockdown post-May 3. Owners estimate that their production loss could be over 2 lakh ton if the situation continues.
West Bengal has 52 jute mills, of which six are under lockout for different reasons. Of the remaining 46, 18 mills are in North 24 Parganas. There are about two lakh workers engaged in jute mills apart from others associated with the trade.
Chief Minister Banerjee, at a press conference last month, said: “We have already given permission for jute mills to work, but with less workers and social distance.”
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Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha said, “Out of 46, 26 jute mills have been given permission to start operations. However, some are near containment areas. Their 15% work force are at least 500 workmen. So, it is difficult to maintain social distance.”
Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA) chairman Raghavendra Gupta said, “Jute is labour-intensive production. So, we cannot start production with only 15% workers. We wrote a letter to the Chief Minister and Chief Secretary and also intimated the condition to the central government.”
He said a handful of jute mills in some districts like Burdwan and Cooch Behar opened but only tested machinery and there was no production.
Former IJMA chairman Sanjay Kajaria said, “If this situation continues, the entire country will face a crisis this Rabi season since sufficient jute bags will not be supplied.”
On worker wages, Gupta said: “We have already started giving up to Rs 5,000 advance to workers. Most owners have distributed this advance. Some of them may not have. The workers should talk to them.”
The industry used to produce 12 lakh ton jute each year. This year, production is down by 1.2 lakh ton and, according to Gupta, may slide further to 2 lakh ton.
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