Jaba Da sat down in the nearest bench of the tea stall stationed exactly opposite to his workshop sipping a cup of tea before he would give finishing touches to a Durga idol. Pal Para, popularly known as ‘Kumartuli’ (potter’s locality), has been sustaining his livelihood for the past 15 years. Yet somehow this so-called ‘peak season’ brought in with it a significant segment of THROW than THRIVE.
Usually, the lanes and the bylanes of the oldest and probably the largest locality of potters in Cooch Behar district of Bengal, hum with a buzz of activity during this time of the year. Yet somehow those very lanes wear a deserted look today. With the pandemic forbidding pujo committees to place orders for the idols resulting in a massive loss of annual income for the artisans, to recuperating from the cyclone that washed away the already built inventory for future orders, these people are experiencing what can closely be stated as the Worst Financial Crisis so far.
An artisan, precisely, receives a minimum order for about twenty to twenty-five idols of Durga each year. However, in 2020, they haven’t received any barring a few household pujas. Bookings are usually confirmed on the first day of the Bengali New Year, Poila Boisakh, or Akshaya Tritiya, the Hindu Spring festival, yet as a result of lockdown, neither have the puja committees booked idols nor have they paid the advance amount.
As a dozen orders for Basanti and Annapurna idols had been canceled at the last minute in and around the 25th of March, this year, artisans fear that with eight to ten idols almost nearing completion, a couple of big-time Pujo organizers have informed that they would like to adopt the ‘wait and watch’ policy to see if the situation improves, now that Panchami is hardly a month away. Some committees have also put the process on hold stating that they are speculating the present economic situation and might opt for a smaller idol instead, this year.
A big idol usually costs Rs 2.5 to 3 lakh whereas a smaller one can be anywhere between Rs 60,000 to 90,000 in Kumartuli. Durga Puja is known to generate a significant chunk of the revenues in West Bengal. The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry Report of 2013 had clearly stated that the industry generates about 25,000 crores of revenue every year. During the Pujo season, a single artisan earns usually around Rs.60,000 a month. Every year, a minimum of 25 trucks of clay and over 3500 pieces of bamboo poles are required. A significant number of 20 to 30 artisans depend on the daily wage of 300 to 500 rupees who come to work from various parts of North Bengal and Krishnanagar during this time of the year. As far as the information goes, a minimum of six people is required to sculpt an idol. The procedure basically encompasses a chain of people depending upon each other, so in case one fails to make it, the entire structure goes haywire.
Today if you ask any one of them, you will receive a unanimous reply, “Kaaj nei” (there is no work). The very organizers who had bought idols in the range of Rs.60,000 to Rs. 80,000 have been unwilling to pay more than Rs. 20,000 this year. The goddess would usually be 12 feet tall yet this year’s organizers are looking for idols that are 6 to 7 feet high. Orders from the countries abroad have mostly been canceled while a few of them who still wish to hold the puja are asking for idols as short as 2.5 feet, the shortest by any standard.
The plight of the artisans has been worsened by the tumultuous cyclonic disruption they had to suffer alongside. Most of their houses have washed out and they were hoping to utilize their earnings from the pujo season for re-establishment. However, with surprisingly meager gross collectibles, it doesn’t even count for a plausible solution anymore. Generally, artisans get paid between Rs.10,000 and Rs.30,000 during this time of the year, yet so far most of them have received work worth 2000 rupees maximum.
In addition to the assistants and helpers, a large number of laborers turn up from districts, namely, Sundarbans, Canning, Baruipur, Joynagar, and their adjacent areas in South 24-Parganas, in order to carry the idols from the workshops to the pandals and return home only after the immersion. This number has been anticipated to be cut off by 70 percent this year amidst the growing risk of Coronavirus.
Moving on to another elephant in the room, Input Supplies. Every artisan in Kumartuli remains heavily dependent on the input supplies, primary, mud, bamboo, straw, ornaments, and dress materials which predominantly get supplied from East and West Midnapore, Burdwan, and North and South 24-Parganas. Bamboo is mostly sourced from Murshidabad and Nadia. Up till last year, ornaments worth Rs.4 crore had been used to deck the idols for the pujo, the amount for the same stands at 1.5 crores this year, which signals a massive slump.
Babu Paul, the secretary of Kolkata Kumartuli Mritshilpa Sanskriti Samity (KMSS) have quoted that in Kolkata alone over 2.5 lakh artisans depend on Durga Puja to make a living. These artisans check the newspapers and television news channels every single day hoping that the Government would announce something in their favor. A couple of them had also visited the District Magistrate’s Office, explained their plight, had filled out a couple of forms only to never hear back and stand completed neglected and exploited for years.
Apart from this, there are artisans who own factories with better capital and employ others as daily-wage laborers. This is continuing despite them receiving fewer orders. In order to cover the entire expense, they have asked the government for loans but neither banks nor the aforementioned have been benevolent enough.
This is the first time in the history of West Bengal’s Durga Pujo that artisans are experiencing a stark dearth of work with bone-breaking amounts of debt. It’s high time the Government responds with a sustainable model for the community that has been delivering both Aesthetics and Affluence in its ultimate form for half a century.