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Pandemic-Struck Fishing Rod Makers in Bengal's Birbhum Struggle To Earn a Living

Artisans in the Rajnagar block of Birbhum district are waiting for the government to bail them out of poverty.

Updated
My Report
6 min read
<div class="paragraphs"><p>With poor income, fishing rod makers in West Bengal's Birbhum district are struggling to survive.</p></div>
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Located within Rajnagar block of Birbhum District in West Bengal is a neighbourhood consisting of 48 households engaged in the craft of making fishing rods called chhip (in Bengali), which gives it its name: chhip para.

We surveyed about 10 households in the locality. Men of these households take up this generational occupation, an obscure art of making fishing rods out of bamboo.

We conducted qualitative interviews in July this year to understand the artisans’ working conditions, provision of state support, and impact of the pandemic.

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Production Process

Making fishing rods out of bamboo is a tedious and painstaking process. Although it is made within the household premises, men have to start their day as early as 5am. They sit on their haunches before a fire to not only harden the bamboo but also to create the designs on the fishing rods. This work continues till 1 in the afternoon, since it gets extremely difficult to endure the heat of the fire after that.

“It is difficult to sit in front of the fire for too long. There is a lot of smoke,” says Sheikh Abdul.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>The authors interviewing one of the artisans.</p></div>

The authors interviewing one of the artisans.

Photo credit: Swapnanil Mukerjee

This arduous process enables them to make around 30 to 50 pieces of fishing rods in a day. The relatively unskilled production processes of washing and whittling the bamboo are undertaken in the latter part of the day, which is done by women sometimes.

“Women sometimes help us by washing the bamboo and cleaning the place. Otherwise it’s a man’s job.”
Sheikh Rehman, Fishing Rod Maker

Procurement of Bamboo and Selling of Fishing Rods

Bamboo required to make the fishing rods is mostly procured from the neighbouring state of Jharkhand. A truckload of bamboo containing around 1,500 pieces costs approximately Rs 18,000 to Rs 20,000 (including transportation cost) which lasts for a month. While the per unit cost of the raw material is Rs 10, the total cost including other inputs and their own labour comes to Rs 25 to Rs 28.

However, the per unit wholesale price ranges from Rs 30 to Rs 32. These wholesalers or mahajans (middlemen) turn the chhip into finished products after attaching the thread and other decorations, and sell them in the market at a price of Rs 80 to Rs 100.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>Artisans with bamboo sticks to convert to fishing rods.</p></div>

Artisans with bamboo sticks to convert to fishing rods.

Photo credit: Swapnanil Mukerjee

Seventy-year-old Sheikh Ahmed says, “Of course they will sell at higher prices. They have to incur transportation costs. But they don’t tell us the rate at which they sell the final product in the market. Anyway, they earn much more profits than us.They exploit us the most during the off-season.”
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Artisans either break even or incur losses during the lean season when wholesale prices are lower. Such poor returns along with an increasing cost of other inputs like coal makes it difficult for them to set aside capital for investment in their craft. In fact, they are barely able to make their ends meet.

On the other hand, demand for fishing rods has been increasing over time. It is highest during the months of April-October, and is sold both within West Bengal as well as in the neighbouring states of Bihar, Jharkhand, and Assam; it is even exported to Bangladesh. However, gains from rising demand accrue mostly to the middlemen, resulting in no noticeable improvement in the artisans’ living conditions.

<div class="paragraphs"><p>An artisan with his stored stock of bamboo</p></div>

An artisan with his stored stock of bamboo

Photo credit: Swapnanil Mukerjee

“There is sufficient demand for the product. But we artisans don’t gain from that. Sometimes we are unable to afford even the bare minimum of starched rice twice a day.”
Sheikh Rehman, Fishing Rod Maker

Meagre increase in the price received by artisans has led to greater intensity of producing chhip. He further says, “Previously, we used to make smaller items using these bamboos, but we have discontinued that and make only chhip. We used to work less earlier. Now we work throughout the year.”

Role of State and Availability of Credit

All the artisans have a state-issued card which entitles them to subsidised credit and calls for state handicraft fairs. However, this is only on paper since this has never materialised.

A dejected Sheikh Ahmed laments, “The card is collecting dust in the box. The government has never listened to us. The situation has not changed even after Trinamool came to power.”

“If I had enough savings, I could stock up on the fishing rods during the off-season. I would not need to depend on the middlemen.”
Sheikh Abdul, Fishing Rod Maker

Other artisans have echoed this sentiment as well. To this end, they depended heavily on mahajans or middlemen for informal means of availing credit. Abdul continues, “Their rate of interest is high, but we have to keep food in our stomachs.”

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Bandhan bank has been a better alternative to them in the recent years. The interest amount is collected once every week. However, the prospect of repaying their debts is still a haunting one for the artisans.

“What are we supposed to earn from this? Most of our money goes away in repaying the debts. I can hardly sleep on Monday nights, because the people from Bandhan come to collect money on Tuesdays.”
Sheikh Ahmed, Fishing Rod Maker

However, the bank has relaxed this in view of the pandemic. They asked them to give back money according to their capacity. “If everybody else gives back their weekly debt, and I don’t, they will stop giving me loans. We cannot survive without the loans," says Abdul.

Impact Of The Pandemic

All the artisans we spoke with claimed that imposition of lockdowns by the state through the months of June and July 2021, following the second wave of the pandemic has had a worse effect on their livelihood than that of the first wave. The second wave, which was more widespread and claimed the lives of many, induced greater fear among customers and wholesellers.

This resulted in increased transportation costs, higher procurement cost of raw materials, lesser frequency of purchase of fishing rods by wholesalers, and lower wholesale prices paid to artisans. In such trying times, they are compelled to accept lower prices because as Rehman says, “What will we eat if we don’t sell our products?”
<div class="paragraphs"><p>An artisan at work</p></div>

An artisan at work

Photo credit: Swapnanil Mukerjee

The households reported receiving ration from the State, but otherwise, no support was extended towards their craft.

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Future of The Craft

In chhip para, making fishing rods is a generational occupation, where men are taught the craft by their fathers and grandfathers. While the next generation sons are aware of and are engaged in the making of chhip, it is uncertain whether they’ll continue with it. Sheikh Rehman mentions,

“All my sons know this craft, but if they observe that this craft is not gainful, then they will not be willing to continue with it. One of my sons works as a mason in Rajnagar, Suri and Dumka, because it gives higher returns."
Sheikh Rehman, Fishing Rod Maker

“Our sons do not have the energy to continue with this craft,” Sheikh Ahmed iterates a similar sentiment, whose son used to work in a factory in the city before the pandemic and is now unemployed.

Sheikh Abdul was visibly disillusioned with the prospect of the future of the craft. His grandson is currently studying in the third grade under a local private tutor, due to continued closure of schools since the pandemic.

“I don’t want my grandchild to take up this craft, and experience the kind of hardships I am facing now. I want him to study well. I want this craft to end with me.”
Sheikh Abdul, Fishing Rod Maker

In spite of the schemes by the state government which are supposed to promote handicrafts, an obscure art is on the face of dissolution as artisans find it difficult to make ends meet. The despair in their voices is evident, as they are skeptical of our motivation.

“So many people have come for a survey, they show it on Doordarshan. But it does not improve our condition,”Sheikh Ahmed wryly states.

(Satyaki Dasgupta is a Graduate student at Colorado State University, USA and Annesha Mukherjee is a PhD Scholar at Centre for Development Studies, Kerala. Special mention of Swapnanil Mukerjee without whom this survey would not have been possible.)

(All 'My Report' branded stories are submitted by citizen journalists to The Quint. Though The Quint inquires into the claims/allegations from all parties before publishing, the report and the views expressed above are the citizen journalists' own. The Quint neither endorses, nor is responsible for the same.)

(At The Quint, we are answerable only to our audience. Play an active role in shaping our journalism by becoming a member. Because the truth is worth it.)

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