Coronavirus impact: Religious festival economy workers face a bleak future

From Kolkata’s Durga Puja artisans to Delhi’s statue makers, festivals were when they earned money for the rest of the year. But not in a pandemic.

WrittenBy:Muhammad Tahir Shabbir& Shaunak Ghosh
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The Covid pandemic has laid siege not only to India’s health structure but people’s livelihoods. The latest GDP figures indicate that the economy shrunk by 23.9 percent in the last quarter.

Given that a large part of the economy works in the informal sector — and the lack of robust data collection during the lockdown — this number may still not reveal the extent to which people’s livelihoods have been affected.

Workers across sectors have been hit, from agriculture to construction. But there’s another group whose work is more informal and seasonal, and it concerns the economic activity surrounding religion. Festival seasons are big markers on Indian calendars, and behind every celebration is a plethora of artists, craftsmen, shopkeepers, priests and shopkeepers. Most of them spend the entire year waiting for the festive season to boost their incomes.

This year, things are playing out very differently. After the lockdown to contain the spread of Covid, state governments banned religious gatherings. Even after the lockdown was withdrawn, the rejuvenation of the gig economy surrounding festivals still seems distant.

Specific religious events come to mind: the Muharram processions and Durga Puja celebrations in Kolkata. Famous for their cultural and historical significance, these take place on a large scale and attract believers from across the country.

Newslaundry’s Muhammad Tahir in Delhi and Shaunak Ghosh in Kolkata met with people who are an integral part of these celebrations, and others, to understand what the pandemic and government restrictions will mean for them.

Tazia makers of Delhi

Muharram is the day when the Muslim community mourns the martyrdom of Hazrat Imam Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson, and remembers him. As a symbol of their collective grief, participants take out processions with their Tazias, or symbolic tomb, which ends at Karbala, where these Tazias are buried.

This year, the Delhi Disaster Management Authority passed an order prohibiting the setting up of public statues in tents for Ganesh Chathurthi and taking out Tazia processions on Muharram. District magistrates and deputy commissioners of police were instructed to speak to organising committees in their respective districts to keep the situation under control.

This order prevented the Tazia processions from taking place in Delhi for the first time in 700 years. Even in 1947, the year of India’s independence and Partition, the processions happened, but Covid is a different beast. The Delhi Disaster Management Authority appealed to the public to remain indoors and host their customs at home.

The government’s decision is well-intentioned. Yet, it has impacted Tazia makers in the capital. Every Muharram, hundreds of Tazia are made and sold in Delhi. It didn’t happen this year, because of the government’s order and the public’s fear of infection.

However, several people told Newslaundry that they knew well in advance that the processions would not take place, and so did not invest money in buying materials to make the Tazias. This has saved them some financial trouble.

In Old Delhi, the areas of Kala Mahal, Sadar Bazar and Nabi Karim are famous for manufacturing Tazias, while Dariba Kalan is a hub to make statues. In Kala Mahal, Newslaundry met Adibuddin, who runs a small shop in the area. He said his father’s drycleaning business shut down during the lockdown.

On the day of Muharram, he said, a procession of 20-25 Tazias customarily started from Jama Masjid through Paharganj and Parliament road to Jor Bagh, where the Tazias would be buried in the cemetery of Karbala.

“Our grandfathers and great-grandfathers used to take out Tazia processions even in front of the British. But this year, the DCP South ordered us not to do it. So, we won’t,” he said.

But he claimed that people made Tazias “in bonhomie”, and not for money. Naseem Khan, who lives in the same area, disagreed. He already bought the materials to make Tazias, he said, and he can’t return them, so he’s suffered financial losses.

In Nabi Karim, where a huge Tazia procession takes place every year, Mohammad Yamin has been making Tazias for 40 years. Locals call him “Ustaad” for his excellence in his craft, but he doesn’t charge money for making Tazias — that would go against his faith. This year, he isn’t losing any money, but it’s a huge change in his annual tradition.

Zunaid, the president of the Anjuman Taziadaran Committee in Delhi, which oversees the Tazia processions, said the committee stands with the government on the decision to suspend activities this year.

“We said this in the meeting with the district magistrate and DCP too. Whatever the government orders, we’ll follow it,” he said. “We ourselves held a meeting immediately after Eid and told everyone that we have to follow the government’s orders, and we shall not take our Tazia processions this year.”

He added: “Life is everything. If we live, we shall take out two processions next time.”

Zunaid was also apprehensive about taking out Tazia processions, even if permission had been granted, because of the witch-hunt against the community by the media following the Tablighi Jamaat event in March. But this point is moot anyway, he added, since the Delhi Waqf Board had also refused permission for the processions and burials.

The Delhi Waqf Board letter.

Zunaid confirmed that they were able to stave off financial setbacks. “Because we decided in the meeting earlier, no one really prepared for the procession,” he said. “A few people who bought some materials lost money. However, we make Tazias together in a socially cordial way, so it didn’t affect us much.”

Statue sellers in Delhi

Statue-makers and sellers in Delhi’s Dariba Kalan are staring at immense financial hardship. Business usually picks up during Diwali and New Year’s Day, but workers aren’t optimistic. Several businesses have closed during the pandemic, and the market is eerily quiet.

Gaurav Agrawal has been in the business for 20 years now. “We’re sitting idle,” he told Newslaundry. “Diwali is a good season for us but the way infection numbers are rising, there’s no hope this time. There’s the season in Ladakh and then Goa — businessmen from there used to take material from here and sell it to foreigners. But nothing of the sort this time, because there’s a complete ban on tourism.”

Meanwhile, Agrawal added, there are still bank and policy installments to be paid. “We’re surviving on our savings for daily expenses, children’s school fees, the price of milk, etc, haven’t come down. At least till March next year, there’s no chance of the situation getting any better.”

Wholesale businessmen face similar woes. One of them, Jasdeep Singh, agreed with Agrawal that business used to be good during Diwali.

“People would buy our statues as gifts but it doesn’t look like that will happen this year. People will probably refrain from giving gifts this year too,” he said. “Our products used to be supplied till Mumbai and Pune...The government has increased GST from five to 12 percent. If they reduce it to five percent again, that would help us a lot. Otherwise, looking at the current situation, 25 percent of businessmen could quit this business.”

Every person Newslaundry met in Dariba Kalan is facing tough times. “I’ve opened the shop after four months and I’ve been coming every day for the last six or seven days. But not a sale worth one rupee has been made,” said a shop owner on the condition of anonymity. “The customers don’t even come inside. First we were hit by demonetisation and then GST and now, everything has crumbled.”

Durga Puja artisans in Kolkata

Around 1,500 km away, Swapan Pal sits in front of his workshop in Kolkata’s Kumartuli, sipping on a cup of tea as he gives finishing touches to a Durga idol. Nowadays, Swapan said, he has plenty of time for tea breaks and long lunches, unlike previous years where he was always in a hurry.

This time last year, with less than two months till Durga Puja, Swapan had been on his feet the entire day, labourers scurrying around him, rows of idols lined before him. The hustle and bustle has now been replaced by gloom. Orders for Durga idols have sharply declined, and most studios are empty.

Artisans told Newslaundry that Covid has landed them in the worst financial crisis in the last 50 years. Where Kumartuli’s 700-odd artisans received orders for Durga idols worth Rs 50 crore last year, this time it’s scarcely Rs 15 crore — a fall of 70 percent.

And yet even last year was a slump; several big puja celebrations curtailed their budgets due to the economic slowdown.

“Last year was bad compared to previous ones. But nothing like this time,” said Babu Pal, secretary of the Kumartuli Mritshilpi Sanskritik Samiti. “Organisers are not even turning up to book idols. The ones that are calling up are seeking idols for half of last year’s price.”

Last year, Durga idols were priced between Rs 60,000 and Rs 70,000. Now, organisers of community Durga Puja festivities in Kolkata are protesting even prices of Rs 25,000, artisans told Newslaundry. Kumartuli typically sells to over 2,000 organising committees, whose members would turn up in large numbers in the days preceding the puja.

Even the size of idols has come down this year. Idols would usually be 12 feet tall, but organisers this year are looking for idols that are six or seven feet tall, said Ashok Pal, an artisan in Kumartuli. Fewer orders and smaller idols means less work for artisans here, the majority of whom come from West Bengal’s districts of Nadia, Howrah, East Midnapore, and North and South 24-Parganas.

“There is no work,” said Ram Sikdar (name changed), a seasoned artisan. “I have been hopping around studios all over the city looking for work. It’s unthinkable to receive so little work during this time.”

Hailing from a small village near the Sundarbans, Ram’s house was severely damaged during Cyclone Amphan in May. He had been depending on earnings from Durga Puja to rebuild his house. “With so little earnings now, it looks absolutely impossible,” he said.

Workers like Ram typically earn between Rs 10,000 and Rs 30,000 per month at this time of year. So far, Ram said, he’s earned Rs 3,000 in the last two months.

Apart from artisans and their assistants, the puja also offered employment to labourers, who would land up in Kumartuli to carry the idols to the pandals. Many of these labourers are from the Sundarbans, Canning, Baruipur, Joynagar and adjacent areas in South 24-Parganas. Organising committees would pay a group of labourers about Rs 5,000 to move the pandal.

“They would turn up in groups of 25-30 each. Around 100 such groups would arrive at Kumartuli just before the puja,” said Ramesh Pal, an artisan. “They would go home only after the immersion.”

This year, around six or seven groups have confirmed that they’ll come, despite the risk posed by the pandemic. The others are not sure what to do.

Another set of affected workers is those who provide raw materials for the idols, like straw, mud, bamboo, dress material, and ornaments. These items are sourced from East and West Midnapore, Burdwan, and North and South 24-Parganas. Bamboo usually comes from Murshidabad and Nadia.

Last year, ornaments worth Rs 3.75 crore were used to dress the idols. “A majority of these workers are left without any orders this year," said the Kumartuli Mritshilpi Sanskritik Samiti’s Babu Pal. “The orders that have come add up to a little over Rs 1 crore. Imagine the slump.”

Not cancelled, but different

However, Durga Puja pandals in Kolkata do not stand cancelled this year. A representative from the Forum for Durgotsab, a Kolkata-based organisation that oversees community pandals in the Kolkata metropolitan area, dismissed reports that there will be no pandals due to the Covid outbreak.

There are approximately 400 pandals constructed in the Kolkata metropolitan area every year, in addition to countless smaller neighbourhood pandals. “Major puja organisers in the city have informally decided that they will be organised on a smaller scale. But they will not be cancelled,” the representative said.

Durga Puja in West Bengal is a big industry, not just a religious festival, from people buying new clothes to musicians hired to play the dhaak. A 2019 report by Brand And Beautiful, an advertising organisation, claimed that total corporate spending on Durga Puja amounted to Rs 500-800 crore, with advertisements accounting for nearly Rs 150 crore.

Pandal organisers told Newslaundry they aren’t sure if companies that usually sponsor pandals will do so this year.

“We have received feedback from sponsors that they don’t know how much money they’ll be able to give us this year because their first-quarter income has been impacted,” said Amitava Ray, a member of the Forum for Durgotsab and an organiser of Hatibagan Nabin Pally, one of North Kolkata’s biggest pujas.

Pratik Chaudhuri, who organises a pandal at Dum Dum Park Bharat Chakra, said the organising committee is facing budget cuts. “We gave money from our puja budget to the chief minister’s relief fund for Covid, and we may give more in the future,” he said. “We know our sponsors will not be able to give us enough money for the pandal this year. But as of now, we still have plans to go ahead with our plans for Durga Puja.”

Amitava Ray said: “If the government makes a decision due to Covid, then we’ll do the pujas in a very small way. Durga Puja has always happened here and the government has always been involved. So we will see what they say and maybe organise it by maintaining social distancing between visitors.”

Meanwhile, organisers are trying to think of new ways to ensure safe visits to their pandals. Three committees, located within a one-km stretch in south Kolkata, joined hands to introduce a “drive-in darshan” concept — an arrangement that allows people to visit the pandals without having to get down from their cars.

“As maintaining physical distance is mandatory, we had to think of a concept that would avoid crowding near the pandals. Our patron, Texas-based Mridul Pathak, came up with this drive-in concept during a video conference,” said Kapil Dev Pathak, an office bearer of the Badamtala Puja committee, in a press statement.

The drive-in route has been mapped to allow visitors to catch glimpses of the Badamtala Puja decoration before proceeding westwards to 66 Pally and then ending at the Nepal Bhattacharya Street Durga Puja. Sanitiser will be sprayed on each car before every pandal.

Sections of this story have been translated from Hindi by Shardool Katyayan.


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