To the wayfaring traveller, the Uttar Pirpur village in Uluberia subdivision of Howrah district will seem ordinary enough. The brick-worked lanes twisting through the village, the lush fields of paddy swaying in the distant horizon responding to the soft autumn breeze, animated groups of school girls on their way back from school will seem familiar to anyone exposed to West Bengal’s countryside. However, this village like most of the other villages in its subdivision is home to the famous zari workers of Bengal. Unlike most of the villages that dot the state’s countryside, the main occupation of the villagers of this village and of many other surrounding villages is not agriculture but intricate zari work.
The intricate embroidery work is well sought after in the garments market. Speaking to BE, Sk. Jaidul, a zari worker from Uttar Pirpur village informed, “Our embroideries are used extensively in churidars, sarees, burkas, kurtas, and lehengas. We are commissioned work by ostagars (garment traders) who give us the design, cloth and material. On an average, we are paid Rs.250-Rs.300 on a daily basis.”
The designs are often conceptualised by these zari workers and are then discussed with the ostagars who evaluate their market. If the design finds popularity, it is then taken up for large scale production and replication.
Rezzak Mistry, another zari worker from the same village, said, “The amount of work for us depends on the density of design. The busiest time is the pre-festive season that starts before Eid and continues till Diwali. A dense design of four feet by three feet would take around five days to finish. We all own agricultural land but very few of us actually farm as zari work is more lucrative.”
Interestingly, most of these artisans are self-taught and excel in their work. Speaking to BE, 24-year-old Sk. Shanwar informed, “Most of us picked up designing from our family members who were in the trade. Zari work runs through generations and we try to preserve this karigari.”
Impact of GST and demonetisation
The zari work industry is integrally related to the ostagars. This section of cloth merchants who link the zari workers to the market have been badly hit after GST and the ripples has been felt in the zari industry. Speaking to BE, Meheraj Khan an ostagar from Uluberia, informed, “We commission zari work to the karigars. We supply them with materials. We collect the finished designs and sell them to cloth merchants in Kolkata. Their (zari workers) well-being is linked to our business.”
He had employed around 16 karigars before GST. However, he only retains the service of six of them presently. He informed, “The person whom I used to sell the designs to, did not have a GST number. After the new taxation regime, he stopped buying and I had no other choice but to downsize my team. We were helpless as we could not pay them.”
He also informed that demonetisation has reduced the cash flow in the market and as the garments sector was predominantly characterised by cash transactions, the sector has been hit after demonetisation. Khan informed, “Previously before demonetisation and GST, we would give merchants designed cloths of around `10 lakhs and they used to pay us back around `7-8 lakhs upfront. This money was circulated in the industry and kept it rolling. But after GST, the scene has completely changed. Merchants are only paying us the amount of sold and billed items. This has generated a massive cash crunch in the industry.”
After GST, the prices of garments have gone up. The ostagars and zari workers are under constant pressure to produce items at lower rates. Additionally, GST has also pushed up the prices of the materials, landing the industry in double jeopardy. Institutionalised credit is not available for this sector. According to Khan, “Ostagars and karigars are not provided easy credit for the industry. Easy availability of institutionalised credit will help the industry to tide over the problems posed by GST.” Governmental support and focused policies can transform the sector and ensure the well-being of the thousands of rural artisans and ostagars who are intricately linked to this age-old industry.