Covid impact in the land of terracotta

Bhutnath Kumbhakar, a master terracotta craftsman, heard that an emergency situation had developed and so he would not be permitted go out of the campus. The nationwide lockdown started due to the Covid pandemic while he was working as a resident artist in the NSHM campus in Durgapur.

COVID Response Watch LogoHe along with several other artists continued their work inside the campus. The NSHM Facebook page highlighted him and his work on June 25, 2020; at regular intervals the page  informed about the wonderful art pieces the artists were continuing to produce despite being captive by the sudden disaster caused by the pandemic. After his work was complete, the college authority and the district administration arranged for his journey back home, to Panchmura village, the renowned centre of terracotta, where about a hundred families have still kept alive this old traditional art form. He was transported in the night. He was all right and had no trace of infection or any symptoms. Naturally he and his family did not opt to put him in a quarantine center, with all its horror stories of spreading Covid infection. As a precautionary measure, home quarantine could be a solution. But people were so apprehensive those days, so afraid, thanks to the media and social-media, that even neighbours could not accept that. It took some time to reach an amicable solution in this regard.

Districts like Bankura and Purulia first got Covid infection when migrant workers started coming back from mid-June 2020. And people became much restive and frightened too. A news report on July 20, 2020 informed, “As many as 13 migrant workers who came to their native village in West Bengal’s Bankura district were denied entry at the quarantine centre by the locals.” They wanted to stay in the quarantine centre of their village, Jagadalla, not far from Bankura town. “Sources said that local police and panchayat members also failed to make the villagers understand the fact that if the labourers strictly stayed in self-quarantine there would be no chance of any further infection.” And those ‘unlucky’ 13 migrant workers had to stay in a tent inside a forest.

But the Covid shock was not temporary. The terracotta village went into a crisis. Virtually no sales and no big orders forced many artists who depend on this income to go for distress sales. Prices fell. And this was a disastrous trend-setter. Lockdown is over and months of ‘normalcy’ have passed; Puja and Festival days are almost knocking at the door, and still those artists have not been approached by big festival organisers, no big orders are coming. The Covid-interval and the resulting economic and social distress could not let artisans, handicraftsmen, to reach even a living-standard they had two-and-half years ago.

‘While prices of all essential items have gone up, prices of our product of labour must also be remunerative, isn’t it, otherwise how can we survive?’, asked an artisan. Already before the arrival of Covid many from the younger generation of these families were leaving their traditional work to search for better earning opportunities. Total family income of a renowned artist could be around ₹15,000 a month in pre-Covid days. Most such families were not connected with agriculture and had no agricultural income.  If the government, NGOs, corporate bodies, institutions and art lovers do not come forward it will be well nigh impossible for Bankura’s terracotta artisans to survive.

We visited some places not far from this famous Panchmura village to see how the pandemic affected others. We went to Sonamukhi, a community development block where some social unrest flared up 15 years ago due to poverty and scarcity. Of course, there are blocks even more backward economically than Sonamukhi in Bankura district. For example, Chhatna. And in Bankura the ‘normalcy’ before the Covid pandemic hit was indeed extraordinary in some respect: the National survey NFHS 2019-20 found among women of age group 15-49 more than 70% could be termed anaemic, 28% of women has body mass index below normal; more than 45% of women of age 20-24 years at the time of survey got married before age 18 years and 16% of women age of 15-19 years were already mothers or pregnant at the time of the survey! And in entire 2020, the paediatric intensive care unit (PICU) of the Medical College Hospital noted “most common comorbidity was found to be protein energy malnutrition (42.53%)”.

For some, the pandemic did not matter much. Four or five women were busy in their little midday gossip time in front of a shop run by a woman in a village not far from the river. “We did not feel any difference,” said one. “Some people suspected with Covid infection came from outside and stayed in the quarantine centre, and all of them recovered. They are with us, families, and we all are engaged in agriculture work.” One of them proudly showed off fish caught from the river and discussed what dishes could be made with them. She invited a couple of persons to taste some fried fish and she was carrying a box with dressed fish pieces for a neighbour’s in-law’s family. The shop was doing brisk business during afternoon hours and slowly all of them got busy. Packaged potato-chips and all such packaged delicacies were available there, as also cold drinks and packed water in a big refrigerator, though the shop was on an ordinary road, not a state highway, and it was just a village neighbourhood.

Kailash, whom we met there, had come back from Maharashtra and has no plan to return. He explained he could make as much money if some investment could be made here. Lands that produce vegetables can be leased for ₹30,000 a bigha (0.33 acre or 0.134 hectare). Thanks to the nearby big city markets the demand was high, “though due to middlemen we seldom get a good price”.  It was a very busy time with the parwal (potol or pinted gourd) crop and all family members were engaged from morning till afternoon. Lands where vegetables cannot be grown are more in this block and adjacent areas, and could be leased for ₹15-16 thousand a bigha or less.

But in a small tribal hamlet not far from this village the picture is altogether different. There people could only tell that they survived and they know how to survive in difficult times. ‘One had to forego some food items that cost beyond our ability to buy, reduced consumption of mustard oil, fish, meat, everything’, explained one. “We forgot the taste of posto” (poppy seeds, now one of the costliest food items, which was once a common delicacy in Bankura). One of the men who was present at the tea shop that evening said proudly that in spite of all hardship his son would be taking admission to a college soon, which is a rare feat in this tribal locality, where many boys normally drop out.

While all were talking, one person sat silently and went back home before others. One of the assembled persons explained, “he still bears the shock of the untimely death of his daughter.” That girl was sickly and had a little disability. Her ailment increased during the lockdown. Father wanted to take her to hospital, to the big town. But conveyance was unavailable. One car owner demanded ₹2,000. But that man (and close neighbours together) could not arrange that much money. She was treated locally, and died within days. Her elder brother, a migrant worker, was then at home. He could come back from Tamil Nadu but had no money due to the lockdown. Most of his colleagues went back to work, “what else to do here, we do not have land to sustain ourselves, so I shall go again to work there in Tamil Nadu. They give ₹550 a day”.

While returning we saw an eatery and coffee was available. Such road side eateries are a new thing in this part, all had sprung up in last 2-5 years or so. People taking home ‘Chinese’ dinner, or eating rolls, chicken pakoda; cold drinks and lassi were also available. Music system and assembled people all together was a little noisy, markedly, in contrast to the miles of darkness and islands of some lights in small villages.

Dilip, the ‘chef’ said it was a piece of bad luck, this Covid and lockdown episode. He lost his ₹32,000 job as a chef in a Delhi eatery and lost all his savings. Finally, he could arrive to his village with his wife and daughter. He got this work which fetched him only ₹12,500. But he was making arrangements: he took over the 2 bigha land his father leased out and started cultivating paddy and then mustard with family labour, hiring as little as possible. Now after 2 seasons he had plan to take lease 2 bigha and start vegetable farming along with this job.

Atul is an old man who was cleaning the tables, washing dishes and gets ₹100 a day. He could not adjust yet. Before lockdown he and his wife sold evening snacks sitting on the roadside in the town and had steady sales. But the lockdown wiped out his savings and forced him to take this job. Driver Dulal was sipping tea. He also had a similar story. He owns a school transport vehicle. He earned ₹18,000 before lockdown. Then everything got shattered due to the lockdown. He was hopeful that schools would start offline soon and his business would again start. Though he is already in a big debt, assurance from the school today about reopening (June 22) gave him hope.

Behind the eatery there was a wonder-world with dim lights of different colours in a well-maintained shed, a farm producing ornamental fish. The entrepreneur just before the lockdown had diversified into this venture from his erstwhile rabbit and non-conventional animal farm. His income almost doubled. He explained that, in nearby cities like Durgapur, Asansol, Bardhhaman, there are some people who have enough money and they are ready to spend for their home aquariums.

Sandeep Banerjee is a researcher based in Kolkata, West Bengal


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