Despite government’s relentless effort to strengthen the jute sector, the conditions of farmers making the golden fibre continue to remain deplorable.
Jute, the second most important fibre crop of eastern India, is mostly produced in West Bengal, Bihar, Assam and Arunachal Pradesh. With an average domestic demand at 1365 thousand tonnes per annum, the crop is not just widely produced, but is also imported. There are about 67 jute mills located in West Bengal.
Most farmers involved in producing jute, work in extreme poverty in West Bengal. They either work on land taken on lease or as workers employed by landowners, with no basic working facilities from owners or government. Uneducated famers rely on age old methods of production. During times of distress they are left to the mercies of money lenders who charges exorbitant rates, NGOs or microfinancing units in the absence of bank accounts.
Government purchases about 90% of the jute for making gunny bags to preserve good grains and is now even emphasising on making shopping bags, carriers, office folders, wall hanging, stationery etc, to reduce pollution and the burden of plastic.
The production of jute is not only time consuming but cumbersome and can affect the health of farmers. Farmers usually spend about 3-4 months in producing jute and have to be under torso-deep water for number of days. The entire production has total eight steps stated as Bundle stock, retting, strepping, washing, sundry, bailing, packaging, transport.
The most labour intensive step is retting which involves submerging the jute branches under water source, like a pond and covering them with mud, which helps the branches to rot. The bark then separates from the wood leading to extraction of the fibre. Ponds are usually filled with stench as the stagnant water is used as a dumping ground. The workers neither use masks to eliminate the stench nor wear boots or any other gadgets to avoid the murky unsafe water. Some of the ponds are also breeding grounds of mosquitoes and other harmful insects.
Salim, one of the labourers, working on his landlord’s field says, “There are reptiles and snakes, but they never have bitten us.” Most of the labourers work by staying under water for more than 7-8 hours a day, that opens up body pores and make it prone to blisters and infection. However, unaware of health needs, hand-to-mouth condition, and the ever rising demand of jute, forces them to work in such crummy situations.
Once the retting is done, strepping requires beating the bushes and segregating the fibres, again a work that needs to be done underwater. Once they are taken out they are dried, bundled and sent to the market and mills respectively.
As jute production and use of biodegradable materials are rising, most people who are employed in producing the raw fibre work under inhuman conditions for money, while consumerism has given rise to retail giants who make huge profits in making jute products. Despite all the hardships, a humble farmer earns only one square meal a day, making upto Rs 100/day.