Hanging by a thread, Sheffield of the East

Sometimes it was a rise in  pig iron prices due to disruption of supply chains due to the  Covid pandemic. Now you can find the Ukraine War as a reason for the increase in the price of coke used in the steel industry. Not so long ago it was GST and demonetisation.

Whatever be the real reason life is surely getting harder, explained an old worker in Howrah district, on the outskirts of Kolkata, that was once considered the ‘Sheffield of the East’.

“Even after things were ‘normal’ and Covid was over, my salary dropped almost 30% in the last three months” says Sahoo, an experienced factory hand in the foundry industry.  “Not just mine, ask that food stall owner on the opposite side, his income also fell, workers had to reduce food expenses too.” Sahoo’s factory is not operational regularly and he and his friends could find piecemeal work  only in multiple sites.

Arup and many of his friends have been coming to work at such steel foundries for almost a decade. But Covid made a lasting impact. Never could they think that trains would not run for 250+ days at a stretch. They come from a village every morning, 9 km cycling, 36 km by train and then 1 km walk. The exercise is repeated in the  reverse direction in the evening. During the lockdown it was – no train, no job, no income.

COVID Response Watch LogoAfter a couple of years things are now ‘normal’. And  yet, his income plummeted from ₹8000 a month to ₹4500 a month. Luckily one friend helped out and  he managed to shift to a loading-unloading and stacking job at an Amazon warehouse, though that is a bit farther away. They come from villages and most of their families have some residual agricultural income that helped them survive. Plus, the 8 kg wheat and 12 kg rice their family of four gets from the government every week and some little governmental relief that their mothers get also helps.

Arup’s family has also got a gourd plant adjacent to their home, which gives them some vegetables, and they had two ducks from which some eggs were available. Fish or meat consumption had to come down from once a week, two and half years ago, to once a month now. Oil and pulses are now bought far less. Shifting to LPG for cooking and LPG price rise made things worse for the family.

‘Wood sales have increased, these are scraps from saw mills, now being used mostly for cooking purpose’, said Mehbub. This is a town about 30 km south from the steel works. It was once a booming town: jute mill, cotton mill, cable factory (last two are closed for decades): Bauria. The jute mill did not suffer that much during the lockdown and most millhands are locals or from neighbouring places, so they could continue.

‘But only a few of the workers are fortunate enough to be a ‘permanent worker’ or even one with their names in the rolls. The most senior persons of such a category may get about ₹12000 a month. Contractual workers of different categories may get between ₹220-280 a day and they are taken in for a fortnight”,  says Alamgir, who himself has his name in the company books now.

‘But the work pressure is so high! These ‘Chinese’ machines! When I started working 22 years ago, I had to look after 2 looms and now I must work with 6, and their speed is much higher. Everyday all quantity produced is checked, if they find my production amount is not up to the mark they will give a warning’ he says.

According to another worker,  Inayet, ‘Many are afraid to take a day off casually due to sickness or tiredness or any reason whatsoever, lest he may be laid off for another 3-4 days. Many newcomers, contractual workers, cannot work continuously and often take a break after a fortnight due to the severe workload.’

Wages have not increased, though it is being heard that daily allowance would rise soon. Meanwhile, things a worker has to buy have become twice as expensive in the last two and half years. So, consumption had to be curtailed. 3 grocery shops in his neighbourhood were shut down in the last 2 years. Owners of two of these shops are now working in factories in Dhulagor. Mehbub’s own shop is also shut down.

Local small and medium scale industrial units were the last resort for many workers but these units cannot employ the growing number of unemployed. Generally, a 12-hour shift of gruelling work is the norm there and work there can give at maximum ₹180-300 a day. There are warehouses, packaging centres and some other units where hundreds of girls also work. Many workers commute by bicycles, some have arranged e-rickshaws or autos which are abundant and have a very low volume of business these days. A company agent working barefoot, canvassing shops to keep his products for customers, working all through the day, is happy if his day’s earnings cross ₹200.

But what is more worrying for Mehbub is the fading away of the zari works that gave employment to thousands and thousands in this district. It was perhaps the first district of Bengal where less than half of the working population were connected with agriculture or related activities as early as in 1970. Zari work could fetch a woman who worked all the day, almost ₹300 a day, though, indeed, it was very strenuous, Mehbub said. And not only women, many men were also employed by this cottage industry, which was once thriving.

“But nowadays, the earning  is ₹150-160 at most, given the same amount of labour and when work is available at all; so much has been the fall in the piece-rate!”

Zari, it is said, came to Bengal when the Nawab of Awadh was exiled by the British to the Garden Reach area on the opposite (Kolkata) side of the Ganges. Zari works were initially done with golden and silver threads. Delicate artistic patterns are stitched using special kind of needles on clothes. Some areas in Howrah district are famous for this work. Besides this, readymade garment making was also a flourishing business on both sides of the Ganges. There were special markets and market days for such products. But the zari business had a pyramidal structure in which the top layer was occupied by a few big businessmen from Kolkata. There were intermediaries, called ‘ostagor’ who were master-craftsmen turned into organisers of production, and they gave distributed jobs to the zari workers.

Though the festive months are approaching, this year also the market has not responded, after two of the dullest years ever during Covid. Arati (name changed) was a zari worker herself when she was a teenager. After marriage she continued work in  her in-law’s home and supported the family with her income. In other words, she was like many ‘housewives’ in artisan families who have to perform all the household chores and also work from morning till night to earn. Slowly she became a master craftsperson and then she provided work to dozens of women in her village. But came Covid and everything stopped. Her husband works on a lathe, which continued operating even though haltingly during these last two years. Arati is unemployed for more than two years for the first time in her life.

Accidently, the day this reporter met her at the work centre of Mujibar bhai she also met an ‘ostagor’ who offered her a connection from where she can get some zari works to be done on sarees. Women are going there by bicycles, taking orders and sarees and returning the sarees worked upon every day. Arati was glad getting the connection, perhaps her life would get a fresh start again

Sara Bharat Jori Silpi Kalyan Samiti run by tireless work of Mujibar Rahman Mallick and his co-workers can provide a lot of information regarding this industry and its present crisis. And they sincerely believe that if the government takes the initiative, then this industry can revive again to its past glory. Mujibar Rahaman has written pamphlets on the problems and prospects of this industry.

He has also worked untiringly for the migrant workers during Covid and published his experience as a booklet. From this booklet we came to know about the horrible condition of the returning migrant workers, how badly they were treated  in the so-called quarantine centres and the present condition of unemployment among them.

Covid not only squeezed to halt this slowly-decaying industry but also, after the ‘normalcy’ not even 50% of the pre-Covid level of work and earning could be reached. This shattered many families. Even children suffered. According to Mujibar and his co-workers’ estimation at least 25% of school students of zari workers’ families have dropped out of schools due to the impact of  Covid.

The fate of thousands and thousands of workers is now hanging by a thread, and the fate of a once-famous industry too, which provided employment to lakhs for many decades.

Sandeep Banerjee is a researcher based in Kolkata, West Bengal

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