By Sumita Ghosh

‘Jago Tumi Jago!’
[15th October] 4am and it’s a blisteringly early rise this Monday morning dawn as All India Radio beams baritone of Bengal’s beloved bhajans (devotional songs). The ancient meditative lyrical waxes over millions of radios and TV sets today; ‘Jago Tumi Jago!’, the call to goddess Durga to ‘Wake Up!’ and begin her journey homeward, to earth, to celebrate her victory of good over evil. (Listen here to the chanting mantras and singing bhajans dedicated to Durga (performed by Birendra Krishna Bhadra).

As today’s occasion, this Mahalaya morn, reigns in the start of Durga Pujo, and Bengalis buzz about the community pujo pandals, where they honor goodness with hopes for a better tomorrow; I reflect on my observations of the severe health challenges among workers in Kolkata’s jute mills, where, as a Swaniti Fellow -together with my two colleagues and our advisor, Shri Dinesh Trivedi (MP, TMC), we are working to build understanding, then design and implement immediate and longer-term initiatives to tackle and set examples for further improving worker health and education at the mills.
Burning the Midnight Oil
Burning the Midnight Oil
One of Bengal’s creative classes, the Kumortuli Artists, prepare Durga idols (casted in clay, lined in Jute, and stuffed with grass) for thousands of Kolkata Pujo Pandals

Back to the Basics

The first month of our outlook into jute worker health has been a daunting experience; our efforts have been largely sanctioned by a lot of digging for information just to get the health basics. Logically, we embarked on identification of the whos/whats/wheres around the most critical health concerns along the jute production line. But after much wracking of our brains, exhausting jute sources on the web, and probing our contacts for any indication of existing data on jute worker health; the first notice we made, and have since been trying to get our heads around, is that the numbers are simply missing (if not incomplete or outdated). This is a daunting reality (and to be frank, it’s quite the crime against humanity given that conditions are so bad, and that the jute industry is such an important one to the region (both in terms of job creation at the mills, and that jute is an important cash crop providing significant contribution to Bengal’s farm income (the 54 mills operating in West Bengal are said to contribute to the jobs of 250 thousand mill workers and 4 million farmers, IANS March, 2012).

Making In Roads
Making In Roads
Initial investigations into workplace health at Meghna Jute Mills (center: Mr. Zulqar Nain (Personnel Manager, Meghna Mills), Sumita Ghosh), Barrackpore, Kolkata

A Glimpse into Barrackpore’s Jute Mills
The Challenge: lung disease on the rise among jute mill workers; consequence of breathing in air-filled dust particles and insufficient preventive measures –The Solution: Swaniti fellows work to design preventive health care implements and training of workers.

 

Goodness Always Wins

As I contemplate the question of human dignity, this Durga day, Shri Trivedi’s first words ring in my ear:

“Conditions in the jute mills are inhumane; workers cannot tolerate more than a few hours at a time in there; there is no air ventilation, no one wears masks or goggles, there is a serious lack of awareness for prevention, and medical services are lagging far behind to serve this demographic. There is no human dignity… I just do not understand how an industry this important to the region and to the country does not ensure the basic health and safety of its workers?”

In the Air
Dust fibers pollute the air and lungs of Barrackpore jute mills causing serious (even life-threatening) cases of respiratory diseases among workers who do not wear masks or engage in other preventative measures

Thanks to Mr. Trivedi for his boundless encouragement and willingness to connect us with folks who have been eager to help, we’ve been able to extract some first-hand knowledge about what’s going on in health at the mills as gathered from our own empirical observations on the ground over the past several days. We do know that respiratory illness is on the rise (we’ve been told by on-site mill physicians that severe cases of COPD and asthma, among other occupational lung diseases are the most recurring contracted sicknesses among jute mill workers). We do not yet know about the numbers, but we now know that our work here must start with collecting basic data (through a mix of methodologies including conducting surveys and questionnaires with workers, physicians, and mill managers and owners), such an effort has been in dire need and now we are presented with the immense opportunity to creatively but quickly design and deploy our student volunteers to learn with us fast about what the most critical health concerns are (and why, among whom, where, and how); this will allow us to help generate interest around the severity of the matter, to raise awareness and establish the much needed sense of urgency for multi-stakeholder engagement from everyone and anyone who can make a difference in improving health at the mills in the weeks and months ahead.

Calm after the storm
Durga’s triumph over evil demon Mahishasura, Community Pujo Pandal, Bagbazar, Kolkata

The Fast Little Wins Can Lead to the Big Ones

Given the immediacy for responsiveness to the rise of respiratory disease among workers, we’re looking at a two-tiered approach to our potential prototype for an immediate project that could get its wings to fly far; to build-in occupational disease prevention programs through training among workers, physicians, health providers, mill managers and owners, and union leaders; and designing ways to incentivize regular preventative action -such as the use of masks (we have yet to see a single jute worker wearing a mask in the mills; not one was spotted on our field visits to date). Layers of challenges will inevitably cross our path (funding and regulatory to name a few) in designing and actually implementing these immediate measures, but with the combination of our hard-work ethic and creative yet pragmatic thinking, and the support we are already being given by Swaniti, advisors, Mr. Trivedi, and the other integral stakeholders so far, there is strong confidence that our little wins here will be possible. Further, with plenty of media exposure and sharing of our findings on various knowledge exchange platforms, our prototype can resonate across the industry, and influence other industries (textiles, natural resources, mining and others) to embrace similar and better improvements to labor, health, governance, and education challenges.


The Prototype
It’ll be no small feat to implement the use of masks, but we got off to a good start in setting an example ourselves!

A Virtuous Cycle

A big win for West Bengal would be in making important but outdated industries like jute more productive and turning these industries into positive contributors (rather than lagging indicators which they are or are at the verge of becoming) to social, economic, and political betterment. The impetus could be in creating incentives and structures to attract investment into modernizing the jute industry (by technology transfer –updating the opulent Dickens era machinery, as well as in diversification of production to supply the growing demand for new generations and new end-uses of jute products such as geo-textiles and other value-added outputs –such products have the potential to secure a good share of global alternative jute markets including geo-textiles for soil erosion, strengthening of rural roads, riverbank erosion, and biodegradable and eco-friendly products (Bangladesh has paved the way in this space and with an open dialogue, West Bengal’s jute industry could learn from their lessons). Another focus our team will develop alongside the aforementioned priority areas, will be to help identify knowledge on the potential for improving mills from cost-competitive and productivity standpoints (the capacity and actual output of production at mills, the amount of waste produced, and other financials).


The Numbers Tell the Story
Getting our heads around the productivity figures with the quality and quota manager at the Meghna Mills, Barrackpore, Kolkata

It’s Always Darkest Before the Dawn…

The most intimidating thing is not so much the heavy challenges that we face in ambitiously vowing to make a difference in jute worker health, and to impact the bigger picture by setting an example to give hope to an industry, to a polity, and to a people. What really gives us the chills, is the colossal opportunity that we have at hand to learn from one of the most important regions in the world; one that’s filled with immense land value, more importantly, one with possibly more human-capital potential than anywhere else (arguably the highest potential –but hey, we’ve yet to find those numbers either). Being at the crux of an industry so important to a region that is undergoing one of the most fascinating modern political-economic transitions anywhere on the globe, a region whose people are still hopeful and hungry for a better quality of life, who have relentless energy for creativity and knowledge, and who want to be reintegrated into the global economy. This is humbling. Our little project can showcase how this is all possible, and mind-numbing it may sound, one small example that’s rooted in goodness, that can prove to maximize both the right to a healthy and just life, an example that proves to work even on a micro-scale, can do more than just spread and be replicated, it can uplift an entire region;  our prototype can encourage Bengal to reclaim its rightful place in ensuring human dignity, happiness and respect. If this isn’t compelling, then I don’t know what is.


Light at the end of the tunnel
Barrackpore, Kolkata