Kolkata: The overwhelming number of jute mills located in West Bengal and several lakhs of people dependent on them for their livelihood has landed the Mamata Banerjee-led Trinamool Congress government in a tricky situation now.
On one hand, the Union Textiles Ministry wants the West Bengal Government to be somewhat accommodating within the framework of the Union Home Ministry’s guidelines, and allow a reasonable number of jute mills to resume operations and start manufacture of jute bags at the earliest. Particularly, as the rabi (crop) marketing season has had a brisk opening very recently and procurement and packaging of grains are set to gather momentum in the northern and central parts of the country this week, the manufacture of jute bags becomes an urgent necessity.
However, given the COVID-19 ground realities and the state government’s top priority at the moment being on taming the identified hot spots along with containment measures, the chief minister has chosen to be extremely cautious in responding to the Textile Ministry’s suggestions.
The context for the Textile Ministry’s fervent plea to the West Bengal Government is: official agencies have started buying wheat in parts of Punjab, Uttar Pradesh and Madhya Pradesh. Procurement in Haryana begins today and is scheduled to start in Rajasthan on Thursday, April 23. Punjab CM Amarinder Singh has gone on record saying that the state government has more than doubled the number of ‘mandis’ , farmers have been issued curfew passes and instructed to bring pre-determined quantities of grains on the allotted day / time to the ‘mandis’. Arrangements had been made for payment through agents within 48 hours.
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Taking note of the state’s preparations for procurement under abnormal circumstances, Textile Secretary Ravi Capoor recently wrote to West Bengal Chief Secretary Rajiva Sinha, “Due to non-functioning of jute mills ..., supplies of jute bags for packaging of food grains have totally stalled. As communicated, a list of required basic number of jute mills (18 jute mills) had been worked out to operate with the condition that the jute mills would be asked to put only 25% of workers on roster basis.”
Capoor’s letter to the chief secretary further observed that jute and jute textiles are essential commodities under the Essential Commodities Act 1955. Based on the Jute Packaging Act 1987, presently there is 100% jute packaging of food grains. It is observed that as per the latest plan of Department of Food & Public Distribution, the jute mill industry will be required to supply around six lakh bales of B Twill bags, including the backlog, within May, which may not materialise if the mills are not allowed to resume production immediately. It may be mentioned that 500 bags make one bale.
The department has further informed that for the months of April and May, jute sacking is essential for packaging of procured paddy. Capoor also invited Sinha’s attention to the Union Home Ministry’s revised guidelines issued on April 15, allowing resumption of select activity on a restricted scale with effect from April 20. For the jute mill industry, advisory reads, “Staggered shifts with social distancing”.
But, against the Centre’s request for deployment of 25% workforce on roster basis, Mamata so far has announced her intention to permit deployment of 15% of the workforce [There is some confusion in this regard. Giving details of selective relaxations, April 20 edition of Ananda Bazar Patrika mentions jute mills have been allowed to operate with 15% workforce on alternate days. No clarification is available at the time of writing this copy].
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The chairman of Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA), Raghavendra Gupta’s letter to the chief secretary lends itself to the interpretation that mills will like to operate two straight shifts with as much workforce as available, say knowledgeable quarters. Gupta has assured the WB Government that mills will abide by the Standard Operating Procedures as prescribed by an expert agency whom IJMA has hired, keeping in view the chief minister’s instruction that COVID-19 protocol should be strictly followed.
But, the jute mill industry has serious reservations about working on the basis of the workforce cap suggested by Mamata, even if one discounts the reported “alternate days” point at the moment. “It’s not practical,” sources point out.
Ex-IJMA chairman Sanjay Kajaria told NewsClick that as it is many workers with roots in Bihar had managed to leave the state immediately on getting indications of a fairly long drawn out lockdown. They availed themselves of whatever transport services were available. Secondly, for restarting mills a good number of workers will have to be deployed for maintenance job, plumbing, clerical jobs and security. So the net availability of workers for operating the looms and meeting finishing requirements will be much less. Such low level of operations cannot be viable and moreover, the output of B Twills will be way behind the six lakh bales that the industry is required to supply (as mentioned in Capoor’s letter). In Kajaria’s reckoning, if stretched to the maximum, the mills will be able to manufacture maximum 4,500 bales a day and supply maximum of two lakh bales of B Twills till May end. In view of the urgency of jute bag supply, the Centre has already made funds available to the Jute Commissioner for clearing mills’ dues upon effecting supplies, he pointed out.
As for pricing, Gupta said mills will now be executing the old orders for which prices were fixed earlier. “When the time comes for securing new season (July-June jute year) orders, we will have to take a call on seeking justifiable upward revision, but at the moment our attention is focused on resolving resumption issues,” Gupta told NewsClick, while discussing the existing situation.
Meanwhile, resumption is being eagerly looked forward to by workers forced by circumstances to continue to live near their places of work. “It’s a tough existence for us, every day sits heavy on our lives. We received payment for the number of days we worked before the lockdown. How long that money can see us through? We do not know when we will receive some money from the management next,” Mohammed Nasir Ahmed told NewsClick, when asked about the situation they were facing. His fellow workers, Babu Akhtar and Mohammed Mustafa echoed similar worries. Nasir and Babu are from the Ghazipur district of Uttar Pradesh. Mustafa is from Bihar’s Chhapra district. All the three lamented that they were yet to receive free ration, despite claims being made by the authorities about regular supply.
Raw Jute Farmers Not Affected Yet
An important part of the jute sector that is not yet badly affected is the raw jute farming community. An estimated 40 lakh people derive their livelihood directly and indirectly from the raw jute economy. Amal Halder, general secretary of West Bengal Pradeshik Krishak Sabha of the Communist Party of India (Marxist), Biplab Mazumdar, an office-bearer in Howrah district CPI (M) and the farmers’ outfit, and Pulak Jha, a former senior executive in the Jute Corporation of India, explained to NewsClick that sowing takes place between March-end and April, and harvesting is undertaken between June-end and July-end.
Raw jute arrivals pick up gradually from August onwards. “If raw jute farmers do not have to bear the brunt of COVID-19 as much as the workers in the mills, it is, perhaps, because of the schedule of sowing and harvesting. At the moment, we can, perhaps, hope that normal harvesting of the jute crop will be possible. Earlier, there were apprehensions that the quality of jute seed that they might be required to use will be inferior to what is desirable for quality raw jute output. But, fortunately for farmers, the quality was alright,” Halder observed.
West Bengal is the top raw jute producer, followed by Assam, Bihar and Odisha. Some quantity is also grown in parts of Tripura and Andhra. As for the likely size of the crop for 2020-21, JCI deputy general manager, Kalyan Mazumdar, told NewsClick, the crop size is assessed and made public by the Jute Advisory Board whose chairman is the Union textiles secretary. The raw jute output for 2019-20 is placed at around 70 lakh bales (one bale is equal to 180 kg).