Pujanomics

Kolkata and Durga Puja go as synonymously as Agra and the Taj Mahal, Cricket and Sachin or, the Parliament and fruitful debate (in theory at least!). The Puja craze has evolved over the years to grow from being a mere passion to a major economic and financial prospect which accounts for a little over 10% of Bengal’s GDP and grows at over 35% CAGR (Compounded Annual Growth Rate) The joyful hubbub surrounding the Puja is marked by massive pandals, the famous Chandannagar lighting, huge crowds, a result of the massive devotion towards the Goddess but is now worth business of almost twenty thousand crores. The Puja serves as an employment opportunity for lakhs – those erecting the pandals, the decorators, idol-makers, craftsmen, electricians, security persons, priests, ‘dhakis’ (traditional rhythmic drum players) and the list is endless.

The Covid-19 pandemic has dampened the Puja spirit this year. While at a macro level it might only seem as lesser pandals, no pandal hopping, lesser shopping and hullabaloo but a micro level analysis would show how widespread its impact has been. Lakhs of families survived on the income generated in the Puja season, it being the only source of income for them. West Bengal alone is home to around 50,000 Durga Pujas and this itself would give an idea of the scale of impact.

II. GROUND ZERO

The year, 2020, in Bengal, has been termed as: “Bishe bish.” In Bengali, ‘Bish’ translates to ‘twenty’ as well as ‘poison’. Read that again. You may get the drift. Cyclone ‘Amphan’ was a curse and coupled with the lockdown, Bengal spiralled downwards. Some Puja committees of Kolkata, in collaboration with the London Sharad Utsav attempted a webinar to discuss the impact of the slowdown on the Puja season but the issue at hand is much greater than a talk. The main source of revenue for most puja organisers is corporate sponsorship and voluntary contributions. With the slowdown, this has taken a major hit, consequently forcing organisers to scale down their plans.

The process of deity making involves a chain of people from the clay and bamboo suppliers and the daily wage earners to the hired/chartered artisans. The chain is interdependent and the Covid-19 pandemic has consequently hurt them all because low demand means lesser or no orders, no hiring of extra artisans, daily wage earners, and in turn no demand for clay and bamboo. Sectors like that of catering business is also deeply affected as there will be no or very limited “community feasts”.

Kumartoli, the focal point of sculpting deities in West Bengal, is a place which hustles and bustles by the end of July every year. However, this year stands shadowed with uncertainty and melancholy. According to Babu Paul, a noted idol maker and Secretary of ‘Kolkata Kumartuli Mritshilpa Sanskriti Samity’, in Kolkata alone, over 2.5 lakh artisans were affected as they depended on Durga Puja to make a living. Estimates suggest that Kumartoli receives orders worth over 50 crores of rupees in the Puja season but has hardly reached 30% this year. Almost all the Puja committees have preferred cutting down of expenses and erecting smaller pandals, and consequently have preferred smaller idols.

The blow of the pandemic feels even harder for the idol-makers because in 2020 they were looking forward to getting more work, having felt the pinch of GST (Goods and Services Tax) last year. In 2019, they paid almost double for raw materials but were unable to pass on the burden to customers because idols are exempt from GST, and as a result of which, many of them hardly made any profit.

Lighting is another major attraction of the festive season and the impact is being felt even by the prime region of Chandannagar. The region which got a whooping 11.5 crores sanctioned for a ‘Light Hub’ just couple of years back, focusing on boosting the industry and skill development, now stares at a gloomy no job scenario.

Durga Puja provides a stimulus for other industries as well. ‘Pujo Bazaar’ (Puja Shopping) is like a custom and begins almost three months before the pujas. Puja shopping is not just limited to the rich and the elite but is a custom for every Bengali. The shopping is not just for clothes, but also appliances, handicrafts, jewellery, especially considering how in Bengal, this season is considered good for purchasing. Shopping is not just limited to the big shopping malls, but is mostly seen in the local and street markets. Places like Gariahat Market, New Market, Hatibagan Market, and the like, become extremely crowded from days before the pujas and this is the best time for the small traders and businessmen. However, due to the pandemic this year, markets were closed during the lockdown. Additionally, even after they opened, the crowds have been just a fraction of what they used to be in the previous years. Another point here is the reduced spending power of the people. There have been multiple job losses and reductions in the salaries owing to the lockdown and the consequent slowdown. Thus, people are not spending on puja shopping, consequently reducing the income of traders and businessmen, thus also leading to the cycle of recession.

Street vendors also have a bonanza during the pujas. Street vendors here not only refer to those hawkers who sell odd and fast-moving items, but also fast food. Owing to increased public health and hygiene concerns due to the pandemic, people are avoiding ‘eating-out’. Even though restaurants are witnesses a little footfall, the street vendors have taken a big hit.

III. CORPORATE ‘SPENDING’ RESPONSIBILITY

Durga Puja is estimated as an industry with a whooping turnover of over Rs.50,000 crores. In the last few years, commercialisation of Durga Puja grew at a massive pace. The city pandals stood crowded with as many advertisements as people. Which business would want to miss out on reaching out to such an audience of lakhs in just a matter of days? The Puja season undoubtedly provided businesses with the perfect marketing opportunity. The question of whether it eroded the essence of the festival is a completely different one.

Moreover, this is also a good opportunity for corporates to fulfil their CSR expenditure requirement as most pujas are organised by clubs or registered societies which carry out various social activities throughout the year. Corporate houses channelize their CSR funds as grants to these organisations that do not have any restrictions on how they want to use the money for social activities.

A 2019 report by an advertising organisation, ‘Brand and Beautiful’, said that the total corporate spending during Durga Puja amounts to Rs 500-800 crore, with advertisements accounting to nearly Rs 150 crore. But this year, with the GDP falling into the negative, the impact on Pujas will be huge. Considering lower revenues in the first two quarters and the low scale of celebrations this year, brands are allocating funds way more wisely. A massive number of Puja committees bank on these corporate advertisement spending as it serves as the primary source of their income. The entire streets would be filled with banners and hoardings with companies advertising their products, almost overshadowing the Puja itself. Chains of hoardings seeming like the Great Wall of China would be a common feature, especially in North and South Kolkata. The advertisement industry too has been greatly impacted as the rent incomes this year are half as what it would have been normally.

The Pujas are almost dependent on them as the other sources like the fund raising from the local residents is generally driven by a couple of well-off individuals as the combined contribution from all is generally low. With both internal and external sources of income looking very bleak this time round, most Pujas have decided to shift to the online mode. The platform has been made engaging, allowing people to worship, offer prayers and perform rituals online. Big screens are being set-up and activities are being held online mainly via social media to attract devotees.

IV. CONCLUSION

In the face of every adversary, one keeps fighting and so does the informal sector. As more and more Puja committees are doing away with ‘dhakis’ or are using technology to get an artificial sound of the same, the ‘dhakis’ work tirelessly to adapt to the new normal, practising with gloves and masks. This pandemic has inspired fresh ideas, with artisans focussing on Covid-19 themed work and Maa Durga slaying ‘Coronasura’! Themes of ‘Coronasur’ and migrant plights seem to be the major highlights, with the hope that Goddess Durga would protect and liberate them from the virus. The State government announced a grant of Rs. 50,000/- each for over 37,000 Puja committees across the State. They will also get a 50% discount on electricity expenses and will be exempt from fire permission fees and taxes payable to the Municipal Corporations / local bodies. The move coupled with adequate safety guidelines is aimed to ensure the smooth celebrations of the Puja season. Although the move has led to a slight push towards the betterment of these workers indirectly, many like the Kumartuli artisans still complain of being denied loans and aids by the Corporation (a regular every year). As these serious issues stare at us in the face and our economy continues to fight them, I leave you with in echoes of the hope “Aasche bochhor aabar hobe, Aasche bochhor double hobe!”

0 0 vote
Article Rating
Subscribe
Notify of
guest
0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x