Durga idol makers battle cost, labour shortage

September 13th, 2011 - 2:46 pm ICT by IANS  

Kolkata, Sep 13 (IANS) Skyrocketing prices of raw materials used for making idols and the exodus of labour to other states ahead of next month’s Durga Puja have badly hit Kolkata’s traditional potters’ colony Kumartuli that churns out around 5,000 images of the mother goddess each year.

Potters say the prices of wood, bamboo, straw, paints and cloth have soared significantly.

“On an average, raw material cost has increased by 40 percent this year compared to the last season. This has badly affected our business,” Kumartuli Palli Unnayan O Adhikar Rakkha Committee (Kumartuli Area Development and Rights Protection Committee) chief whip Apurba Paul told IANS.

“Our profit margin has suffered drastically as we cannot pass on the increase in raw material prices entirely to the customers,” he said.

Another artisan Ram Paul echoed Apurba.

“Can you imagine a piece of bamboo, which we purchased for Rs.50 last year, is available at Rs.150 this year?” remarked 44-year-old Ram, sitting in front of a semi-finished clay statue of Goddess Durga.

Idol makers said good quality straw was beyond their reach because of very high prices.

Kumartuli Mritshilpi Samiti (Kumartuli Potters’ Assocation) assistant secretary Bhabesh Paul said the artisans were not making profit as the increase in idol prices have not been commensurate with the rise in input costs.

“Day by day, the loans of artisans to private money lenders and banks are rising. They are unable to repay the money. Banks are sending notices. A few of them got involved in court cases also,” he said.

The organisers of community pujas were more eager to raise the budget on canopies than on idols, he said.

North Kolkata’s Kumartuli - also spelt as Kumortuli - is the nerve centre of clay idol making in the city. Artisans here supply idols of Hindu gods and goddesses to community pujas in not only Kolkata and its neighbourhoods but also other parts of India and abroad.

Durga Puja starts Oct 2 and will flag off the festive season in eastern India. The potters’ town on an average produces 5,000 Durga idols each year.

Even raw material cost of fibreglass Durga idols, much sought after by NRIs, has swelled by about 30 percent this year compared to last year. Fibreglass idols are light, durable and easy to transport compared to those made of clay.

“We use three types of chemicals in making fibreglass idols. The prices of all three have soared unexpectedly. Altogether raw material cost has increased 30 percent. Labour cost has also swelled by about 50 percent,” said Gopal Chandra Paul, who sent Durga idols to his clients in the US and Canada this year.

An idol sold for Rs.1 lakh to overseas buyers last year has fetched Rs.1.5 lakh this time, but the profit margin remained unchanged.

“The prices of all commodities are skyrocketing. The government is responsible for that. It is unable to control the prices,” said the 62-year-old second generation idol maker, who has been exporting idols since 1994.

The huge exodus of labour to states like Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar has posed another problem for the artisans.

Kumartuli requires about 4,000 labourers during peak season - before Durga Puja. But this year only 3,000 workers are available. Compared to last year, labour cost has gone up by 50 percent, say artisans.

“The shortage is mainly because a large number of them went to Maharashtra, Uttar Pradesh, Madhya Pradesh and Bihar during June-July to make Ganesh, Durga and Sherawali idols there. Patrons of pujas there pay them higher wages than us,” said Apurba Paul.

“Due to this we cannot take more orders and our business has suffered,” he added.

Some also say the shortage is due to labourers taking to the rural jobs scheme in their villages.

Bhabesh Paul said with the number of Durga Pujas in other states increasing, the organisers were luring labourers from Kumartuli by offering lucrative contracts.

“They are getting very high wages. A high-skilled potter gets Rs.40,000 per month there. Even semi-skilled labourers get Rs.20,000 per month. We cannot match this. So the exodus will continue in future. We do not know how we can stop the trend,” he said.

The wages of labourers in Kumartuli this year vary between Rs.150 and Rs.1,250 per day. Most of the labourers come from West Bengal’s Nadia and Murshidabad districts.

(Mithun Dasgupta can be contacted at mithun.d@ians.in)

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