At 65, Mujam Shakidar, a handloom weaver of Shantipur, finds it tough to weave even a sari a day, for which he would get just Rs. 70.
“Weaving involves exertion on the whole body. You have to paddle about 20,000 times and move your hand to and fro, up and down as many times besides keeping sharp concentration on the cotton,” said Shakidar, taking a brief rest to look at the camera.
He took a deep breath, leaned his feeble body a little backwards, “At the end of the day, I feel like I have walked at least 20 kilometres!” He becomes exhausted and he takes two days to complete a sari; hence earns only R35 a day.
His only son, Munna, 38, left his Rajpur home at Shantipur for Mumbai about seven years ago, being unable to adjust with the poor pay despite hard work. At Mumbai, working as a construction labourer, he earns R140 a day.
Surjahan Shakidar, 55, a relative of Mujam, helps her family by starching the raw cotton. Around 11 gachha cotton is needed to weave a sari. She takes about an hour to starch one gachha, for which she earns R5.
Rolling one gachha of starched cotton would take another 45-odd minutes, for which she would get R3. On an annual average, each member of a weaver family earns R30 per day.
The only phase of sari-making that is paying is walking on the cotton inside a half-oval shaped wooden plate. The men, who are apparently stronger and more skilled, take two days to complete the process, which prepares cotton for 50 saris, and they earn Rs. 200.
“Such is our daily wage! Otherwise my son would have been here with me!” sighed Mujam Shakidar.
“Even rickshaw-pullers earn more than us, at lesser physical labour. But how many rickshaw-pullers do you need in a town? We have no other alternative for earning our bread,” said Swapan Ghosh, 35, a neighbour.
Even the unskilled labourers working under Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Act earn R100 a day in West Bengal, while semi-skilled and skilled labourers get even more.
Three members of Ghosh’s four-member family are engaged in this profession, and yet they find it tough to earn R100 a day.
Workers in this cottage industry make more than 60% of Shantipur’s total voters of about 1.91 lakh. They vote every time. But their lives never change. In the last one decade, their wage for making a sari has increased by R15 only.
“The state government has failed to complete the handloom census because of which none of the weavers has any identity card, and hence can’t avail the central funds,” said Shantipur MLA Ajay De.
“Whoever may come to power, will they increase our wages?” is the question ringing louder and louder inside every lanes and by-lanes of Shantipur, where two of every three house have one or some other link with this industry.
Sonia Gandhi’s Wednesday speech, however, have fuelled some hopes. The Union government would take initiative to reduce cotton price, she said during her 15-minute speech at Shantipur on Wednesday, in support of four-time MLA and five-time civic chairman of Shantipur, Ajay De.
“She is the country’s top decision-maker. If she says so, there is reason to hope,” said Ghosh. “Even if the wage for a sari were Rs. 100, both my brothers would have been be back from Gujarat, where they are working in the jewellery industry.”
Incidentally, three hours after Sonia’s rally, CPI(M) politburo member Sitaram Yechury blamed the UPA government for the misery of Shantipur’s textile weavers.
“It is because of the UPA’s wrong and anti-people policies that thse weavers are living in such poor condition,” said the Andhra-born Rajya Sabha MP from West Bengal.
De banks on Sonia’s announcement for a firth term in the Assembly. And the weavers bank on De.
“The state government has done nothing. Let’s hope that something different happens this time,” Parashar Saha, a weaver at Sahapara.