Durga Puja: Fears of 3rd Wave Loom Large Year After Covid Hit the Rs 15K Cr Economy

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With 93 days to go for Durga puja, arrangements are afoot for the five-day festival. But organisers, much like the last year, have decided to keep the celebrations low key given the Covid-19 situation. In the second wave of the pandemic, idol makers and artists in Kolkata are once again worried about Durga Puja.

Forum for Durgotsab, a platform of 500 community Durga pujas in the city, took to Facebook to announce that the countdown has begun and a list of norms to be adopted for this year’s celebrations would soon be prepared.

Durga Puja, one of the biggest street festivals in the world, is also one of the largest employment generators in the State, providing jobs to over 1 lakh people for nearly six months every year.

With more than 10,000 Pujas in the State and 1,000 more in other parts of India and overseas, the festival has emerged as a hub of activity with each community Puja sustaining a micro-economy, particularly in Kolkata. From those erecting the pandals to the decorators, idol-makers to craftsmen, electricians to security persons, priests to dhakis, the Pujas help thousands boost their earnings.

The idol makers and artists in Kolkata suffered great losses because of the coronavirus last year. They were hoping to make it up this year but the situation continues to look bleak.

Mintu Pal, one of Kumortuli’s renowned artists, said, “Before the coronavirus pandemic, I used to make at least 40 idols every year. Used to send 5-6 idols abroad. So far this year I have sent only two”. He further said that till now he has not received any booking or advance from any Kolkata puja committee. Some has confirmed over the phone that they will come soon to pay the advance. He is worried about the future of the idol makers and artists.

Firhad Hakim, West Bengal Transport and Housing Minister and one of the spearheads of big-ticket Chetla Agrani Puja of South Kolkata, said: “This is not the time to organise a gala Durga puja. We have asked our clay modeller to make an idol which is comparatively smaller in size.”

Soumya Sankar Das of Chetla Agrani Puja said that Durga Puja will be organised but on a smaller scale like last year. The government guidelines that will be issued according to the situation will be followed. “Every year our club takes part in public service initiatives. For the last one and a half years, Chetla has been at the forefront of various activities including providing oxygen service during this pandemic situation. Besides, relief distributed in Sagardwip and Kakdwip after Cyclone Yaas caused devastation. Even during the Durga Puja public service work will be given importance.”

Anjan Das of Nakatala Udayan Sangh, another big puja in South Kolkata, said, “Puja will be organised keeping social responsibility in mind. Because now health is everyone’s priority. Therefore, the Durgotsab will be organised by our club following the government guidelines.” There will be an allocation of funds for social services along with the cost of puja. The club has been providing food for Covid-19 victims in their ward for a long time. Relief materials were delivered to the devastated Sundarbans.”

Like last year, this year Bhabatosh Sutar is making the idol of Nakatala Udayan Sangh. Besides Nakatala, he is also the artist of the Arjunpur ‘Amara Sabai’ club. He said, “For artists like us, Durga puja is not just a source of income, but it is an art. But for those who have just graduated from art college, it is a platform to reach somewhere, showcase their art. 20 years ago, I was in that very same place too. In this situation, they will suffer severely.”

He thinks that pandemic has broken the backbone of the entire Durga puja industry. “During the Durga puja, cash reaches the hands of marginalised people. This is very importantm” he said.

Income of many families is involved around this festival season, one can’t deny this fact. The owner of Sree Bhumi Sporting Club, one of the famous Durga Puja’s of Bengal, DK Goswami, said, “Puja of Sree Bhumi will be held in the same way, as everyone knows”. Like other clubs, they have also played a significant role in providing Covid relief.

Every part of the puja budget is kept for public service, this year will be no exception. But this is yet to be finalised. Thinking of the faces involved in this festival, their festivities will be in the usual rhythm. This Sunday, the club will hold the Khuti puja. The Goddess Durga and her progeny wear a crown, chain, and jewellery of approximately of 25 kg gold.

Another famous club of South Kolkata, Behala Club, will organise Khuti puja just for sake of old tradition. “This year puja will be held for only worship. Like last year, this time too, puja will be organised simply,” the organiser said.

The five-day festival generates transactions worth Rs 4,500 crore in Kolkata and Rs 15,000 crore in the entire State. 75% of the total puja fund comes from the corporate world. The corporate spending in Kolkata’s Pujas amounts to nearly Rs 500-800 crore, with advertisement through banners and gates accounting for nearly Rs 150 crore.

With the advent of corporate sponsorships, Puja organisers are no longer dependent on contributions from residents. If the budget of more traditional and low-key Pujas is around Rs 15 lakh, mid-size pujas get around Rs 25 lakh, larger puja gets Rs 60 lakh and mega ones can go up to Rs 1 crore depending on the location, size and execution of the theme. Corporate funding and outdoor advertising account for about 90% of the cost.

Corporate firms did not spend on advertisements last year. Donations, subscriptions and retail advertisements cover about 30 per cent of the expenses, the rest is usually taken care of by corporate funding.

Most Durga Puja organisers are set to register a record deficit in their books this year also following a substantial dip in revenue from advertisement and sponsorship. Even if the pandemic is controlled, the financial crisis that most Puja committees will find themselves in will take at least two years of corporate funding to overcome. Nakatala Udayan Sangh has already talked to some organisations, but nothing has been finalised yet. Large-scale Durga puja is impossible without corporate funding, thinks Chetla Agrani and Behala Club too. However, corporate funding for both clubs has not yet been finalised this year.

In the pre-pandemic years, about 50 per cent of the work of Kumortuli would usually be done by this time. But this year, everything has been halted in the second wave. Sanatan Dinda, a renowned artist, said, “I want Durga puja to happen. It is to liberate people from suffocation, but at the same time, the financial aspect of Durgapuja is also undeniable. The festival can never be held virtually. Celebrations following strict norms.”

Last year he made 3 idols, this year he has not taken any booking. He has decided not to make idols this year because he wants other artists to also get a chance. He said, “Durga puja is not my source of earning. But there are innumerable artists whose main source of income is the Durga puja. So, I want other artists to make idols instead of me, for whom this is the main or only way of earning.”

Like last year, this year also poses to be financially fatal for these hardworking artists. Workers and artists are the worst hit by the onslaught of the second wave.

As per the 2018 report, the economy of creative industries around Durga Puja is ₹32,377 crore, which is equal to $4.53 billion. This is a huge amount of money for a seven-day festival. It is comparable to the GDP of Maldives and around 2.5% of the GDP of West Bengal.

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