West Bengal’s jute industry barely hanging by a thread

The crisis in West Bengal’s jute industry is getting exacerbated, with several mills suspending operations this year. Shiv Sahay Singh visits mills along both banks of the Hooghly to understand the growing despair of workers, owners and farmers

Updated - May 14, 2022 09:16 am IST

Published - May 14, 2022 03:15 am IST

More than 12 jute mills have closed between November 2021 and April 2022, throwing 60,000 workers out of work. Hastings Jute Mill is one of the few mills that are still operational. It is one of the oldest mills in the country.

More than 12 jute mills have closed between November 2021 and April 2022, throwing 60,000 workers out of work. Hastings Jute Mill is one of the few mills that are still operational. It is one of the oldest mills in the country. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

On Eid, after a brief spell of rain, the crowd that had assembled outside the Ishaque Sardar Masjid in Kankinara Nayabazar area in the morning hurriedly dispersed. After two years of pandemic-induced restrictions, this Eid was expected to be celebrated with pomp. But though people hugged and greeted each other in front of the picturesque mosque after the morning prayers, there was no palpable joy accompanying festivities.

“Livelihood is the biggest source of happiness,” said Wahid Kamal, rolling up the sleeves of his fraying grey shirt and looking at his six-year-old son Atif, who was wearing a new pink shirt. Wahid and Mohammad Guddu, both workers at the Reliance Jute Mill at Bhatpara in West Bengal’s North 24 Parganas district, explained how difficult the holy month of Ramzan had been this year after the mill closed, leaving workers with no income.

Inside the jute mill quarters, the mood was even less celebratory. Ejaz Afjal said he lent some money to his neighbour, a father of three, who, like Ejaz, has been out of work for the past few months. It was on the morning of January 27, 2022 that Wahid, Mohammad, Ejaz and nearly 5,000 workers went to Reliance Jute Mill to find a notice hanging on the gate announcing temporary suspension of work.

The crisis

The large iron gates at the entrance of the century-old jute mills on both banks of the river Hooghly are forbidding. They tend to reflect the mood of the area: during elections, posters of competing political parties are affixed to these gates; every autumn, banners and advertisements on Durga Puja adorn them; during general strikes, messages from trade unions cover them; and occasionally, small notices on white paper, announcing suspension of work, are stuck on them. The people of this region, which has witnessed terrible riots and intense political battles during the 2019 Lok Sabha and 2021 Assembly polls, fear these white notices the most.

Mill workers saw the notice waiting for them on January 1, 2022 on the large yellow painted gate of the Gondolpara Jute Mill. This sprawling mill is located near Chandannagar, on the western bank of the river, not far from the erstwhile French settlement. On March 31, the gate of the mill bore a rather unusual notice, which said that the “majdoor lines will get two more hours of electricity” — a small relief for those living there. Ever since the mill closed, power supply at the quarters had been irregular, totalling 12-14 hours a day.

Without power on a hot day, a young couple, Kanai Shaw and Renu Shaw, sat inside their small cubicle-like quarters. Renu rocked her five-month-old son, lying on the hammock, to sleep, while her four-year-old daughter ate a frugal lunch. An emaciated Renu said her husband had been out of work for the past few months. The family was hungry and helpless.

The gates of of the Reliance Jute Mill, which downed its shutters on January 27, 2022. About 5,000 workers have lost work because of temporary suspension of work at the mill.

The gates of of the Reliance Jute Mill, which downed its shutters on January 27, 2022. About 5,000 workers have lost work because of temporary suspension of work at the mill. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Though suspension of work is no new phenomenon, recent months have been especially difficult. Between November 2021 and April 2022, at least 12 mills along both the banks of the river downed their shutters, putting 60,000 workers out of jobs in one fell swoop. The workers of Reliance Jute Mill on the eastern bank and Gondolpara Jute Mill on the western bank all lost their jobs when this decision was taken.

According to the Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA), there are about 93 jute mills in India, of which 70 are in West Bengal. Of the 70, 54 are located in the three districts of North 24 Parganas (25), Howrah (15) and Hooghly (14). The IJMA, which dates back to 1884, estimates the number of workers at 3.5 lakh. It says about 40 lakh farmers are associated with the production and trade of the golden fibre. About 80% of the finished product – or B. Twill jute bag — is bought by the government for packaging food grains and agriculture produce like sugar.

According to industry experts, the recent crisis began last September, when the Office of the Jute Commissioner, which comes under the Ministry of Textiles, fixed the maximum price of raw jute at ₹6,500 per quintal. This decision to cap the price at ₹6,500 led to a fall in procurement (as raw jute sells in the market at a price higher than ₹6,500 per quintal) and mills decided to suspend work. A mill owner and a prominent person in the West Bengal jute industry explained the losses mill owners are incurring. At his Kolkata office, he did a quick back-of-the-envelope calculation and pegged it at ₹12 lakh a day. “The capacity of my mill is 100 tonnes a day,” he said. “The market price of raw jute has climbed to ₹7,200 per quintal which is ₹700 more than the ₹6,500 cap by the government. For buying 100 quintals, I have to spend ₹7 lakh more.”

Another issue which the jute mill managements of the State stress on is non-implementation of the Tariff Commission’s report for fair price of B. Twill jute bags, which has led to a loss of ₹1,500 crore to the industry, according to jute mill owners. Since September 2016, the jute industry is being reimbursed for the jute bags on a provisional temporary price. In March 2021, the Tariff Commission submitted its final report; it is still to be implemented. “Apart from spending ₹7 lakh more, we are losing ₹5 lakh because the Tariff Commission’s report on B. Twill jute bags has not been implemented. How can I keep the mill open if I have to shell out ₹12 lakh a day,” the mill owner asked.

While there have been no reports in the public domain about the steps taken against hoarders, the Jute Commissioner, Moloy Chandan Chakraborty, said in a statement that farmers generally dispose of their stock of raw jute by October/November every year. “Thus, there is hardly any raw jute left with the farmers,” the statement said. “At present no jute of the current season is being held by farmers and jute lies with middlemen/traders and even with mills in their own name or in the name of third parties at various places. Relaxation in the upper price cap will only accrue illegitimate gains by these parties and no benefit will accrue to the farmers.”

In an order on May 11, the Calcutta High Court directed the Jute Commissioner to “review and re-fix the rate” of raw jute if the notified rate cannot be adhered to. Justice Amrita Sinha’s 16-page order explained the supply-related bottlenecks. It pointed out that since jute mills are legally bound to supply jute bags to the government for which they are reimbursed at the notified rate, they have no other alternative but to sell the finished products at a loss. With sustained losses, the mills are destined to close down and the already dying industry will perish in no time.

“On the other hand, if the notified rate is increased, the government may not agree to pay more for the jute bags and the idea of switching over to cheaper alternatives may be a viable option. If that be so, then the jute mills, because of exorbitant rates, may not find any takers of their products. Large scale joblessness and economic crisis is bound to follow,” the order said.

Of the many issues raised by the court, one was why the price of raw jute was hiked despite a bumper growth. “There must be some loopholes which are required to be plugged. But who will bell the cat is possibly the next relevant question,” Justice Sinha said.

On the mill floor

Production is an elaborate exercise. Hastings Jute Mill, one of the oldest jute mills in the country, was once the weekend retreat of the first Governor General of Bengal, Warren Hastings. The mill is located at Rishra, in Hooghly district, and was launched by the Birkmyre Brothers in 1875, with 230 looms. It is one of the mills that is still open and sees hectic activity. Bales of jute are first treated with oil and then turned into fibre through mechanised looms. The set-up is like an elaborate car assembly unit. By the time the fibres are turned into threads, they have passed over a dozen machines. Sunlight seeps through the skylight and thousands of people on the factory floor do back-breaking work on old looms. After fibres are turned into threads, they are put on a spool and woven into large bales of jute cloth to be cut and stitched into jute bags. At the end of the assembly line, there is a small set-up where jute imported from Bangladesh is processed. The fibre from Bangladesh looks, and is also considered, superior to Indian jute.

Production inside the Hastings Jute Mill. This is one of the oldest mills in the State and about 5,000 workers work here.  The set-up is like an elaborate car assembly unit.

Production inside the Hastings Jute Mill. This is one of the oldest mills in the State and about 5,000 workers work here.  The set-up is like an elaborate car assembly unit. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

On May 5, the IJMA issued a statement that the Government of India (GoI) is considering continuing anti-dumping duties against imports of jute products from Bangladesh. “Despite the current anti-dumping duty, jute exports from Bangladesh to India, as per Government of Bangladesh statistics, have been increasing. IJMA has contended that the industry would have been completely wiped off by now, had the GoI not imposed an anti-dumping duty,” the statement said. The industry body stated that Bangladesh provides cash subsidies for jute production.

According to a report of the Commission for Agricultural Costs and Prices (CACP), 2022-2023, India’s jute production has been declining during the last decade. The main reason for this is the decrease in acreage, which is mostly due to cultivation of crops such as paddy, maize, groundnut and sesame. The availability of various types of synthetic substitutes is also reducing the demand for jute. According to the CACP, while the average area annually under jute cultivation was 8.2 lakh hectares from 2000-01 to 2009-10, it dropped to 7.3 lakh hectares from 2010-11 to 2019-20. In 2021-22 it was 6.3 lakh hectares. However, jute production has increased this year compared to the previous year.

In the farmlands

About 50 km from the historical Hastings Jute Mill, at Astara villa in West Bengal’s Tarakeshwar block, farmers expressed concern about extreme climate conditions. Ganesh Khanra and Tapan Kumar Khanra, who used to cultivate six bighas (one acre is 1.6 bigha) of jute about five years ago, now cultivate four.

Production inside Hastings Jute Mill where bales of jute are first treated with oil and then turned into fibre through mechanised looms.

Production inside Hastings Jute Mill where bales of jute are first treated with oil and then turned into fibre through mechanised looms. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Ganesh, Tapan and other farmers claimed that every bigha of jute cultivation costs ₹16,000 to ₹18,000 and the yield is about four tonnes per bigha. Based on the recommendations of the CACP, the minimum support price of jute for 2022-23 has been fixed at ₹4,750 per quintal. If one farmer produces four quintals of jute per bigha and sells it at the MSP, he barely breaks even.

The jute crop is sown in early April and harvested in July. The crop is about 6-7 ft high at the time of harvest. But as tedious as the cultivation of the golden fibre is the process of extracting the fibre from the harvest. The jute crop is left to rot in water bodies for almost 15 days. Every jute farmer in the village has a small water body. In order to extract the jute, a person has to stand in waist-deep water in these ditches in the stench and pull out the fibres. The agricultural labourers who do the hard work are not from Hooghly; they come from Gosaba and other interior areas of the Sundarbans. Their daily wage is ₹400-500, a substantial expense for farmers. In this picturesque village which was known for quality, jute farmers are slowly switching to other crops like groundnut and sesame.

No demands or protests

The issue has also turned political. In the 2019 Lok Sabha polls, voters of Barrackpore on the eastern bank and Hooghly on the western bank voted for the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and sent two MPs to Parliament. The region has migrant workers from Bihar and eastern Uttar Pradesh who have worked in the mills for two-three generations.

By 2021, the voters once again turned to the Trinamool Congress. With mills closing and the policies of the Centre being largely blamed for the crisis, Barrackpore BJP MP Arjun Singh started criticising the Jute Commissioner. The change in the party’s fortunes in Barrackpore created ripples not only locally, but in the entire BJP establishment. The State BJP vice-president, who vowed to protect the interests of jute workers and farmers, was summoned to Delhi and a meeting was arranged with Union Textile Minister Piyush Goyal. The development has also sparked speculation on whether Singh is using the crisis to warm up to the Trinamool Congress, the party he left in 2019 to join the BJP.

Curiously, there have hardly been any protests by trade unions in a State that has seen militant trade unionism in the past. There have been no demands that the mills open, nor have there been strikes. An administrator of a century-old jute mill in Hooghly said that there is no trade union left: “The older leaders are past their prime and a new leadership has not come up. This is an advantage as there is no interference in running the mills, but also poses problems as there is no one to take the issues relating to the mills to the people.”

Watch | India's 150-year-old jute industry

West Bengal Labour Minister Becharam Manna publicly praised the labourers of the jute industry. “They do not strike even though they are suffering,” he said. The last incident of trade union-related violence in the State was reported in the Hooghly North Brook Jute Mill in July 2014 when workers killed the CEO over a dispute of wage cuts and Provident Fund (PF) cuts.

Dashed hopes?

As he stood a few metres away from the Weaverly Jute Mill, Rajkumar Yadav, one of the representatives of a national trade union, said he had high hopes from the tripartite meeting held of Central and State officials and stakeholders of the jute industry on May 9. A layer of dust on the mill gates made it difficult to read the notices pasted on it. The mill closed in November 2020. Yadav said the days of trade unionism were over. He claimed that several retired employees had not got their PF dues because the management did not deposit its share. “Hundreds of workers in each mill have not got their PF. But you will not see even a handful of complaints at the office of the Labour Commissioner,” he said. In almost all the mills, the workers and retired employees do not know who to approach if their PF is denied. “Sometimes they do not want to vacate the quarters,” the union leader said. The closed jute mills are also witnessing reverse migration, with workers from Bihar and Uttar Pradesh going back to their homes after the mills closed.

Every closed jute mill is a unique story of despair. Gauripur Jute Mill has been closed since 1997. The workers remember that Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee had visited the area in 2010 and given assurances to the workers. Hanuman Jute Mill in Howrah closed in December 2021, New Central Jute Mill closed in 2015 in Bidge Bidge (South 24 Parganas) and Kolkata Jute Mill in January 2021 in the city.

The workers quarters of the Reliance Jute Mill on the morning of Eid-ul-Fitr. The mill downed its shutters on January 27, 2022.

The workers quarters of the Reliance Jute Mill on the morning of Eid-ul-Fitr. The mill downed its shutters on January 27, 2022. | Photo Credit: DEBASISH BHADURI

Even the jute mills that are open hardly present a picture of hope. Not far from Reliance Jute Mill is Nadia Jute Mills which, according to the workers, is “operational somehow”. The mill workers’ quarters, which extend till the bank of the river, are in a dilapidated state. Last October, the roof of the workers’ quarters came crashing down and five people had to be rescued by firefighters. Arjun Majhi, a mill worker, said his cow died in the incident. “We do not know who owns and runs the mill. Who do we ask for repairs,” Arjun asked. The roofs of the quarters are hanging at several places, the pillars have tilted, and one water tap that was meant for over 20 families has dried up. The only object that stands as a reminder of the present is a large cut-out of Lord Ram with his bow and photographs of Chief Minister Mamata Banerjee and her nephew Abhishek Banerjee wishing people on Ram Navami. Everything else, including the fate of the workers and the industry they belong to, appears to be hanging by a thread.

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