Bengal’s distressed jute farmers
Anwar Ali has cultivated jute in his small field at Golabari area of North 24 Parganas in West Bengal. He hopes to buy new clothes for his children after selling the crop. His eyes glimmer with joy as he thinks of a better future for his family. But soon a shadow is cast over his way and happy thoughts give way to despair as apprehensions of the money he has borrowed from moneylenders, and the anticipated knocks on his door brings him back to the grim reality.
The last season was disastrous for the jute industry in West Bengal, which suffered from severe shortage of raw material due to poor crop, forcing several jute mills to suspend work, leaving thousands of workers jobless.
Fifty-five-year-old Ali, who looks older than his age perhaps due to constant mental stress, was not spared either. He suffered massive losses after failing to repay the money that he had borrowed from private money lenders and banks after mortgaging his land.
Even the prediction by the Jute Commission that the ongoing year would be profitable for the industry because of the bumper crop, fails to lift up the mood of farmers like Ali, “The good crop would hardly make any difference to our lives. In fact, it will bring down the prices of raw jute because of ample supply. The middlemen will buy the raw jute from us at a very minimal price and then hoard it before waiting for an appropriate time to dispose it when the prices are high as it happened last year. We have no alternative but to sell the crop to repay the loans. They make a killing while we live in starvation,” says, Muzaffar Ali, whose two sons Khalid and Imran put in hard labour to save their father the high cost of employing labourers in this highly labour-intensive industry.
Several farmers rued that lifting of the export ban on jute by Bangladesh has also spelled doom for them. The neighbouring country facing severe jute shortage, had imposed ban on its export last November. The ban was lifted in April this year.
The claim of bumper crop is a gimmick to create a psychological pressure on the farmers to sell their crop at a lower price fearing supply overtaking demand.
Several other farmers this correspondent interviewed rued they often have to sell the raw jute even below the Minimum Support Price (MSP) of Rs 3,200 per quintal to meet household expenditure and repay their debts.
Shrinking jute space
The reducing interest of farmers in growing jute can be gauged from the fact that the total land under jute cultivation has come down to 7.46 lakh hectares in 2015-16 as compared to 8.72 lakh hectares in 2012-13. Low returns have also deterred them from growing jute. As per an estimate, a farmer gets only Rs 1,455 per bigha in return for jute as against Rs 7,000 for maize on the same piece of land.
With an annual turnover of around Rs 10,000 crore, the industry employs four million jute growers and about 3,00,000 workmen. It is estimated that one-third of West Bengal’s total population is directly or indirectly linked to jute. Districts like Nadia, North 24 Parganas, Murshidabad, West Dinajpur, Cooch Behar, Jalpaiguri, Hooghly and Malda, account for 71 percent of the area under jute cultivation in the country.
The Jute Commission of India (JCI) has, however, termed the ongoing year to be a game-changer for the industry that has witnessed closure of several mills in the past few years, “There will be no shortage of raw material as we expect the production to be around 100 lakh bales (1 bale is180 kg) as against the demand of around 90 lakh bales for the industry this year. We also have a closing stock of six lakh bales from last year and Bangladesh is also likely to export another six lakh bales to us, says Subrata Gupta, the Jute Commissioner, adding that with abundant supply of raw material being available, the Government thinks some closed mills will re-start operations.
But those closely following the industry are sceptical about the claims of a bumper crop. They think this is a calculated tactic by the government and hoarders to demoralise the farmers. “This kind of rumours circulate every year before the crop is likely to hit the market. The claim of bumper crop is a gimmick to create a psychological pressure on the farmers to sell their crop at a lower price fearing supply overtaking demand,” says SP Bakshi, former secretary of the Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA).
About Rs 300 crore worth of gratuity of over 50,000 retired workers is pending with the mill owners for several years.
To curb hoarding, the mill owners sent a letter to the Ministry of Textiles in May 2016, seeking action against any malpractice. “We want the farmers to be benefitted and so have written to the Centre to save the industry from the clutches of speculators and traders who exploit farmers. We are also trying to be in direct contact with the farmers to eliminate middlemen who exploit them,” says Sanjay Kajaria, a mill owner and former chairman of IJMA.
The present turmoil in the industry makes it difficult to believe that the first jute mill of the country was set up in West Bengal by George Acland at Rishra in Hooghly district in 1855 because of the abundant supply of labour, ample coal for power and river connectivity.
At present, there are 67 jute mills in West Bengal of which 19 are closed mainly because of labour unrest and shortage of raw material. The ailing and closed mills have already taken a toll on the retirement benefits of the jute workers. An estimated Rs 300 crore worth of gratuity of over 50,000 retired workers is pending with the mill owners for several years.
Jute farmers and mill owners are also apprehensive about the growing clamour to reduce the use of jute bags in packing foodgrains.n