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A Walk Through The Potters’ Town Kumartuli idol-makers face rising labour and input costs

Updated: October 23, 2010 3:42 pm

Had Zamindar Pran Krishna Halder who held the first Durga Puja in British Kolkata during 1606 or nuevo-riche feudal lord Laxmikanta Roy Mazumder, who was the first patron of Kolkata’s potter town and initiator of the ‘puja’ of Durga in clay idols ever thought about Maa Durga making her journey to USA or Europe crossing the Kalapani after 500 years? Probably not.

With the revival of the global economy, it was expected that Bengalis all over the world would revert to celebrating their traditional root of enjoyment Durga puja. Though more than a hundred artisans in the narrow Banamali Sarkar Lane area were racing against time to send their idols overseas, Kumartuli has received lower overseas orders than last year.

                From the last few years, e-booking has helped the artesian to establish their art-work globally. Pradyut Paul, a marketing representative from Kumartuli online idol-booking informed, “This time the order is one-third of last year’s.” Why is it so? “Bengalis in USA or UK are financially still in trouble. They have either reduced the budget of the puja or postponed their orders,” he stated. Spain and South Africa are added for the first time this year as export markets.

                Shilpakendra this time has bagged an order from Malaysia, a Muslim-dominated country. “We have received higher orders than previous year. Durga idol made of fibre glass will go from our workshop to USA, Holland and Switzerland,” said Ramesh Chandra Paul, who is supplying fibre glass idols for the last twenty years. Though, the longevity of fibre-idol is higher its price has increased from last year due to price rise of different chemicals. “We sent idols made of fibre, stone, plaster of Paris to different parts of India and abroad,” he stated.

Input and Labour problem

Down the narrow lanes, Kumartuli, the world famous potters town in Kolkata, is facing rising labour and input costs to make the idols of Devi Durga and her family.

                According to Bijon Pal, who has one workshop in the area, the costs of organising Durga Puja have gone up this year due to increased labour and raw material costs which in cases have jumped almost 50 per cent. The price of labour has gone up for two reasons. The government’s flagship employment programme is leaving the Gods bereft of their makers. The successful implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act in parts of West Bengal has meant that fewer hands are available for the season for crafting mud and straw into the idols.

                Historically, districts such as Nadia (Krishnanagar) and Burdwan have sent many of the thousands, who create idols of the deity and her four children for what is probably the biggest annual festival in eastern India: Durga Puja. “Our labourers are not ready to come to the city leaving their native places as they are now getting 100 days job there,” said Bijan Pal. Another reason for labour shortage is the upward migration of labour to other states like UP, Gujarat, Maharashtra etc where the wage rate per day is higher than in West Bengal. Thus, the emergence of alternative employment opportunities in the hinterland, along with other generational changes, had resulted in diminishing profits for artisans.

                The traditional potter colony employs seasonal labourers numbering 10-12 on average per workshop. The wage rates vary according to the mode of the job. “They vary from 250-1200 per day,” said such a labourer of Shilpakendra. “Our workers go to other parts of the country to make deities. Last year our workers went to Benaras for making idols,” he said.

                “The labour charges this year have gone up by at least 20 per cent. Because of the space and labour shortage, we took fewer orders than in the previous year. The raw material charges including that of clay have become double. As a result, the price of the deities becomes higher but the customers are not ready to pay us. Passing the load of higher price to customers is a partial task,” said Nabakumar Pal, the brother of Bijan Paul.

                Not only the wage rate of workers but also the price of inputs like bamboo, rope, nail and even mud has doubled. This is creating trouble for the industry as a whole (see Table A).

Rehabilitation Problem

KMDA’s rehabilitation plan is another trouble for the industry as fifty artisans had to shift to a new place. To modernise the famous area, the Kolkata Metropolitan Development Authority had initiated a project and identified the whole area with four blocks—A, B, C and D respectively. A part of the potters’ town—the C Block—was destroyed to make it a modern one. The potters whose workshop has vanished faced loss in business as they have shifted half a mile to an abandoned godown of the state government. The business of Indranath Pal, Kanailal Paul, Sujit Kumar Paul and Swapan Kumar Paul, etc had suffered a huge loss due to this shift. “The customers are not aware of the place. So, we are getting fewer orders here,” said one of them. According to Nimai Chandra Paul, President, Kumartuli Mrit Shilpa Samiti, poor drainage system, higher electric bill, cost of shifting are the reasons for the loss.

                A majority of the rehabilitated are still in the dark about the time of the completion of the KMDA’s project. The artisans, who are living their for more than 50 years generation wise shifted in the month of April and KMDA promised to finish the project within 18 months. “Six months are already over, but there is no sign of building up of new infrastructure there. Initially, it was known that land acquisition by the government was causing the delay. But after the municipal elections (May-June, 2010) everybody keeps mum,” said Sujit Kumar Paul. One of the artesian informed that they had talked with the local Trinomool Congress councellor, but he did not took any initiative even after one of the labour died from Malaria. The inadequate sewerage system made the place unhealthy for the workers to work in the daylight as well as at night.

By Samarpita Roy from Kolkata

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