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Tuesday, Dec 10, 2019

Economic slowdown, fear factor hit West Bengal’s Durga Puja economy

Most puja organisers in West Bengal said they had to cut down their budget by 15% to 30% and shopping for the annual festival Durga puja.

kolkata Updated: Oct 03, 2019 17:15 IST
Tanmay Chatterjee
Tanmay Chatterjee
Hindustan Times, Kolkata
Economic slowdown has cast its shadow on Durga Puja festival in West Bengal.
Economic slowdown has cast its shadow on Durga Puja festival in West Bengal.(Photo by Bachchan Kumar/ Hindustan Times)

Sekhar Chakraborty was literally praying for divine intervention five days before the beginning of Durga Puja, West Bengal’s biggest religious festival.

The treasurer at Jairampur Sammilani, a community puja organising club in Kolkata’s southern suburb of Behala, said the situation is unprecedented.

“Economic slowdown has cast its shadow on the festival. From an initial small budget of Rs 10 lakh, we have come down to Rs 8 lakh. Local residents are making small donations and sponsors are putting up all sorts of excuses,” said Chakraborty.

Also read: Durga Puja samitis make a stand — no plastic at pandals this year

“We are being forced to borrow. Idol makers, decorators and electricians are breathing on our neck because they are not getting payments on time from other clubs as well. This never happened in recent years,” he said.

In Golpark, an upmarket neighbourhood in the south Kolkata’s Gariahat area, Debasish Ghosh, president of Jagarani, an even smaller community puja club, has been running from pillar to post for three months to raise Rs 7 lakh.

“Advertising agencies that used to give us anything between Rs 2 and 2.5 lakh for putting up display boards around the pandal said they lost many clients in recent months. We owe our electrician Rs 80,000. Luckily, he said he would wait,” said Ghosh.

Puja organisers, businessmen and shopkeepers across the state shared similar narratives.

Most puja organisers said they had to cut down their budget by 15% to 30% and shopping for the annual festival, according to store owners and roadside hawkers in Kolkata and other districts, has witnessed an unprecedented slump of 30%-40%.

“You may see noticeable footfall after sundown but that is not really reflecting on sale figures. Several bundles of sarees are still lying unopened. Most people are opting for cheaper bargains,” one of the managers of a well-known saree shop in south Kolkata said on Wednesday on condition of anonymity.

Also read: ‘Divisive politics won’t work in Bengal’: Mamata Banerjee counters Amit Shah on NRC

“The Benachity market in Durgapur, the biggest in the region, draws buyers by the millions during puja every year. A few days ago I found it almost empty,” Kabi Dutta, president of Durgapur Chamber of Commerce in Bengal’s West Burdwan district, said.

“I have noticed that consumers are not willing to spend. People across all sections of the society are holding on to their money,” Dutta said.

The Asansol-Durgapur region is West Bengal’s biggest industrial zone and home to some of the oldest and biggest public sector iron and steel plants such as Durgapur Steel Plant and Alloy Steel Plant, heavy industries such as Chittaranjan Locomotive Works and several coal mines run by Eastern Coalfields Limited.

“Several government and private companies have not made festive ex-gratia payments this year. There have been layoffs as well. No matter what Union ministers may say, people are anticipating much worse,” said Dutta.

The situation is no different in Siliguri, north Bengal’s biggest town in the foothills of Darjeeling.

“Sales at local markets are poor. There is no cash flow, an essential requirement for any economy. There is no major manufacturing industry in north Bengal. Darjeeling’s tea industry is the single largest employer for local people,” said Biswajit Das, general secretary of Federation of Chambers of Commerce and Industries, North Bengal.

“I have observed a fear factor in people. The overall situation resembles a recession. Rain and floods have added to the problem,” Das said.

The Associated Chambers of Commerce and Industry of India (Assocham) conducted a survey in 2013 and said in its report that West Bengal’s Durga puja industry was growing at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of about 35% and was expected to touch Rs40,000 crore by 2015 from its 2013 size of Rs 25,000 crore despite falling rupee, rising inflation and slowdown in economy.

The Assocham report also projected that the average expenditure for puja organisers was expected to go up by 20% in 2013 because of appreciation in all expenses.

“The Centre wanted to implement a lot of things but did things in a hurry. I would specifically point at demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax (GST). Both hit traders in a rather quick succession,” said Das.

Economist Indraneel Dasgupta of the Indian Statistical Institute said the estimated 30%-40% drop in sales in retail markets during puja season was too high and the figure was not compatible with the GDP growth.

“At 5% you cannot say that GDP growth is really bad. It is acceptable. The fear factor is working because 95% of the country’s total employment is outside the public sector. People dependent on the private sector are living in fear because employment elasticity has collapsed. Hence, people are hoarding the cash they have,” said Dasgupta.

Referring to the Centre’s recent decision to cut corporate tax to help the private sector, Dasgupta said, “In principle, I don’t object to it but the problem is with the timing. While it is expected that corporate houses will invest this money many will hold on it till the market looks up.”

“Also, government employees were expecting a hike in dearness allowance but it did not come. All this is depressing market sentiment. An economic crisis like this does not have a short-term remedy,” Dasgupta added.

The slowdown has not even spared those who walk the corridors of power. Several Trinamool Congress leaders and ministers are associated with some of the biggest community pujas that bag awards every year.

One such puja is organised by Tridhara Sammilani in south Kolkata. Debasish Kumar, TMC leader and member of the mayor-in-council, Kolkata Municipal Corporation, is closely associated with Tridhara whose budget usually hovers around Rs 80 lakh.

“To be frank, we are running short of Rs 20 lakh and I am not sure if we can finish the pandal as planned. Market conditions had never been this bad,” said Kumar.

Known for its gigantic structures and unique themes, the puja organised by Sreebhumi Sporting Club in Lake Town has fire services minister Sujit Bose as the main organiser.

“Some sponsors left but some new ones came in since this puja means a lot to people. We are lucky enough to stick to our plans,” Bose said.

Against this backdrop, even chief minister Mamata Banerjee’s decision to hand out a Rs 70 crore bonanza to West Bengal’s 28,000 community pujas by raising the direct state grant by a whopping 250% to Rs 25,000 has not been able to bail out the organisers.

The clubs were given Rs 10,000 each last year.