Kolkata: Buying of gold and silver articles on November 2 on the occasion of Dhanteras 2021 saw a perceptible bounce-back with the pandemic largely under control and aided, as it were, by the return of a large number of Bengali karigars to Mumbai and other jewellery hubs from their native places in West Bengal where they had gone back during the two waves of COVID-19.
Tentative estimates of the trade in Mumbai placed the quantum of the yellow metal transactions at over 45-50 tonnes, as against less than half this quantity on the occasion of Dhanteras 2020 when human and economic costs of the pandemic were heavy. “We are pretty hopeful about the prospects in the days ahead,” says the president of the Mumbai branch of Indian Bullion and Jewellers Association Kumar Jain. “Return of a majority of the Bengali craftsmen, who dominate the labour force in the trade, has certainly helped us," Jain told NewsClick.
At the moment, the trade is not so much worried that affliction from the new Omicron variant of Coronavirus will be widespread. With testing and vaccination having gained momentum and the Union government, as also the states, having gained experience from handling a tough situation, it is hoped that recourse to lockdowns will be avoided.
But NewsClick’s queries from other sources suggest that the small and medium-scale jewellery units who manage their business with, say, two, three or a maximum of four artisans and for whom contract manufacturing for showroom owners has a fair share in their income, have doubts about the outlook.
“I won’t say I am not concerned about Omicron. After the devastating pandemic, the going became tough for us and if Omicron spreads, it will be a struggle for existence for us. I can recall the after-effects of the Gold Control Act in the early 1960s," said Kalidas Sinha Roy, general secretary of Mumbai-based Bengali Swarnashilpa Kalyan Samiti.
The Centre’s attitude towards the jewellery sector leaves much to be desired. There is not much delay in decision-making for, say, the textiles industry, the sugar industry which have strong lobbies. The demand for common facility centres is pending for a long time, Sinha Roy said. In his assessment, 15-20% of the karigars are yet to return to their jobs. It seems they are earning their livelihood from other activities, such as selling vegetables, and as helpers in public transport. The free ration scheme is also helping them. They are keeping their earlier employers posted about the situation in the places they were working.
President of Kolkata-based Swarnashilpi Bachao Samiti Samar De is of the view that those staying back are unlikely to return to reclaim their old jobs “because of their unhappy experience and unhealthy working conditions. Some business owners have come here to persuade those karigars to return and resume, even hinting at higher wages. But, I think the offer may not induce them to change their decision. Asked, if they can get karigar’s job in the state, De said possibilities are there. He also indicated business owners may increase wages.
Rauf Sheikh, who heads the Ahmedabad-based Samasta Bengali Samaj Association, said many of those who have come back from West Bengal are finding it difficult to manage. Normally, artisans have small quantities of ready gold with them. For a re-start, they made ornaments with that gold and offered the same to showrooms. While on this process, they started getting some orders from the showroom owners.
Sheikh sees the shortage of karigars persisting and, therefore, “we are asking those visiting their native places for some family occasion to get some young people from their areas. Some people have come and to our surprise, a few of them are Santals (adivasis) and Bagdis (various sections of agricultural field labourers). We are training them up," he told NewsClick.
President of Mumbai-based Goldsmith Coordination Committee Rajaram Mahadeo Deshmukh is of the view that about 50% those who had returned to West Bengal are still to come back to reclaim their old jobs. Deshmukh sees a shortage of skilled and semi-skilled Bengali craftsmen surfacing. Asked about the chances of the industry and trade raising payments as an inducement, he said when business is back to normal and craftsmen are in short supply, automatically they will get more.
Interestingly, the yet-not-widely known gem and jewellery park at Ankurhati, Domjur in the Howrah district in the proximity of NH6 and NH2, built by West Bengal Industrial Development Corporation, holds out a hope that the gem and jewellery business will appreciate the need for introducing better manufacturing practices and make working conditions for karigars congenial.
This hope has for decades remained a far cry in the jewellery making hubs across the country, with Mumbai topping the list in terms of the value and volume of business and for being the most prominent destination for eking out a living for an estimated 1.5 lakh karigars with varying skill levels and of different age-groups. [There are nearly 6.5 lakh Bengali karigars in the country].
The Ankurhati Gem & Jewellery Park (AGJP) was handed over to the trade in April 2018. Since then, out of the 62 standard design factory-concept units, 47 have been occupied. Among the occupants are Tanishq, Malabar Gold & Diamond, Mannapuram, Mussaddilal Mamraj from outside West Bengal and city-based Senco Gold. President of AGJP Ashok Bengani is optimistic that the remaining 15 units too will be occupied before long. Here, karigars are not required to sweat it out in cramped, inadequately lighted quarters in congested localities as is the case in Mumbai, Kolkata and many other places.
Each karigar has been provided with a separate table to work on. The processes, that culminate in the manufacture of high-priced, attractively designed gold and diamond-studded ornaments, entail the use of chemicals and acids. A modern common facility centre and adoption of processes that eliminate adverse effects of chemicals and acids on the health of karigars and make the environment “breathable” are the distinctive features at AGJP, Bengani told NewsClick. It has earned the appreciation of the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad, he added.
The facilities apart, what also stands out is the provision for a well-equipped classroom for training karigars. Today’s youths are least inclined to follow their fathers/ other senior male family members to become karigars. The AGJP management has undertaken an exercise to spot youths whose relatives are working at the park, organise visits to the complex and arrange interaction with them in a bid to remove the youths’ misgivings about the profession. Also, it is helping those karigars who came back to their native places in West Bengal during the Corona waves to get re-engaged in the trade by certifying their skill-level and experience to jewellery establishments wanting to recruit karigars.
What is the business outlook like? By and large, it looks satisfactory at the moment. A point on which there seems to be unanimity is that exports should see a definite spurt. In the evolving geo-political situation, countries having strong ‘domestic demand’ for ornaments made from yellow metal and diamonds will step up sourcing from India. In this context, they mention the US, Australia and New Zealand, among others. If Ankurhati is taken as a model and jewellery unit owners unite to set up modern parks with state governments’ involvement and create training facilities, unemployed youths may be inclined to accept jewellery making as a source of earning a livelihood, say the sources from whom NewsClick sought an assessment.
The writer is a Kolkata-based senior freelance journalist. The views are personal.