The jute industry is sick for a long time. But COVID-19 may leave it maimed forever.
Jute mills need a huge number of workers in every shift to carry on regular productions. But in the time of COVID-19, such concentration of workers cannot be allowed. So, the state government has restricted the number of workers for every shift to 30 per cent. Similar restrictions have been imposed on other industries and offices too. But most of those have provisions for ‘work from home’. Jute mills do not have such facilities, and the industry’s production graph is falling dangerously.
No one knows when the COVID-19 crisis will be over. Subir Chakrabarty, a jute mill worker and a CITU member, says, “Both the central and state governments have miserably failed to control covid-19. Now they are putting restrictions. They are also talking of a third wave, So, the restrictions will continue. It will kill the jute industry and the workers. It is a labor-intensive production process, and if the restrictions continue, the industry’s future will be damaged.”
But how present restrictions can damage the future? Well, the Indian Jute Mills Association (IJMA) explains it. According to them, the industry is dependent on the Mandatory Jute Packaging Order of 1987. According to this order, only jute bags can be used for packaging food grains all over India. For the packaging of sugar, 20 percent of the total packaging has to be jute. The Food Corporation of India (FCI) and others buy 10-12 lakh tonnes of jute bags per year. This is the lifeline of the jute industry. As the majority of jute mills are in Bengal, the state gets lion’s share of the order.
But the restrictions put on it may reduce the production in 60 running jute mills (some others have been closed) of the state by a whopping 70 per cent. If the restriction continues for several weeks, the mills will not be able to supply the required number of jute bags to central agencies.
In that case, the central government will be forced to dilute the mandatory packaging order. And once it is diluted, the jute industry fears, it will be very, very difficult to restore the old order. “If the plastic bags occupy the space once, there will be heavy pressure from the plastic industry on the government,” says a jute mill officer, who thinks the jute lobby is weak and will not be able to counter it. In that case, many of the jute mills will become unviable and thousands will lose the job.
As such, the jute mills have not been able to supply two lakh tonnes of jute bags till the end of April due to a shortage of raw jute. The production and supply chain of raw jute has been affected by the pandemic too. Now, the restrictions of workers foretell a grim future. IJMA chairman Raghabendra Gupta has taken up the matter with the state government. But it is unlikely that the state will allow more than 50 per cent of workers in a shift. So, covid-19 may finally doom the future of the jute industry.
(The author Diptendra Raychaudhuri is a senior journalist based in Kolkata. He has a wide range of experience in covering West Bengal politics and has authored several books)