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Handloom workers’ woes loom large in saree hub Santipur

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“Who will buy the sarees I make,” is a question that Haridas Basak (87) repeatedly asks as he works in a dimly lit room with a tin roof and no fan. Lockdown has been difficult on his family which comprises his wife, two sons, their wives and four children. All of them help out with the weaving, but barely earn Rs 13,000 a month. Weaver normally earn around Rs 300 a day but for over 90 days last year, there was no work and the situation has only slightly improved, said Basak.

In Phulia, the plight of the Taanti community, mostly refugees who trace their lineage to the Tangail weavers near Dhaka, is replete with questions about the future.

“We take over a month to make a Jamdhani saree, but most people now prefer the power-loom ones which are cheaper. Our children feel the skill we have is worthless,” said Shyamal Basak, 52, Haridas’ son, adding, “Kintu ekhane kono kaaj nei (But there is no work here). The state government promised pension for my father. That too didn’t come despite us filling out all the forms,” he said.

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    There are no government jobs and the small piece of land the family had was sold off last year, he said, adding, “My cousins have gone to Bengaluru and Mumbai to work as daily wage labourers, but they have also come back now. But they have options.”

    In Basak para of Phulia, famous for its Tangail silk and cotton sarees with motifs, almost every household has a handloom installed years ago costing at least Rs 20,000 each.

    Swarnadip Das who owns the saree kutir here said the increasing dominance of the power-loom industry, which controls a large share of the domestic market, has taken its toll on weavers. “What we expect from whoever comes to power is to channelise the demand in the right way. We want help in marketing because here all kinds of sarees can be made. The number of handloom weavers is coming down everyday because they feel there is no demand for what they make.”

    The weavers’ woes have become the focus of the political campaign here. While the TMC has blamed the Centre for the lockdown-induced distress, the BJP is promising a makeover of the saree hub if it comes to power.

    The TMC has fielded the MLA of Santipur from 1991 to 2016, Ajoy De, formerly with the Congress, after sitting MLA Arindham Bhattacharya defected to the BJP recently and is fighting from Jagatdal seat. TMC workers said TMC MP Mahua Moitra was appointed to head the party in the district to solve the infighting between various people. Bhattacharya’s defection however led to much chaos in the TMC and the BJP as he is learnt to have formally left the Congress only recently although he has been working for TMC for two years.

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    A BJP party worker said Bhattacharya has not even been made part of the party’s campaign so that workers are not provoked. Meanwhile, Jagannath Sarkar, the BJP MP from Ranaghat, the Lok Sabha constituency where Santipur is located, seen as a neutral figure, was sent by the national team to sort things out and start his campaign in a constituency that figures prominently in the party’s vision to set up a spiritual-religious tourism destination in the state.

    Sarkar joined the BJP in 2013 but has been with the RSS since he was 15 years old, and has been part of the organisation’s Krida Bharati wing that promotes physical activity and games. Santipur holds great importance among Hindus because it has seen many legendary saints such as Chaitanya Mahaprabhu and Adwaityacharya who shaped the Baishnab traditions practised by Bengalis even today.

    “Santipur gave the world Krittibas Ramayana, and poets and nationalists such as Bandyopadhyay, Karunanidhan and Jatindra Mohan Bagchi but because of the Left and TMC, the rich heritage of this ancient town has never been celebrated. We want to correct that,” said Sarkar.

    Sarkar said nearly 70% of the people belonged to various backward and scheduled castes.

    “The number of people from the Namasudra community, including some Matuas, is high here. The SC/STs are satisfied with the way our PM is working for them. To solve the problems of weavers, I wrote to textile minister Smriti Irani and got NABARD to provide loans at 2% to them during the lockdown. I am confident of a victory from here. How much the margin will be is the only question,” said Sarkar.

    Home minister Amit Shah and actor Mithun Chakraborty held roadshows here last week.

    To address the Matuas, who are found in significant numbers all over Ranaghat and Santipur, Mamata Banerjee has promised land pattas and warned the community against voting for the Citizenship Amendment Act alleging it will make them lose benefits.

    “Last week, our thakur Santanu Thakur called a few of us in Bongaon and told us we must do our duty first and ask questions later. He has asked us to vote unitedly for the BJP that will give us citizenship, if not immediately but at least in near future,” said Ujjwal Roy, a snack seller here.

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