Cloud of uncertainty hang over Durga Puja festival in Bengal

It is one of the major drivers of the State’s economy but organisers remain unsure on how to proceed with preparations

With less than two months to go for the biggest religious carnival in West Bengal, every discussion on the 2020 Durga Puja festival is shrouded in a cloud of uncertainty. The question that puja organisers, idol makers and even common Bengalis are grappling with is — how will the Durga Puja festival be organised this year in the midst of the pandemic?

Kumartuli, the famous potter colony on the bank of the Hooghly river in north Kolkata, bears a forlorn look, with few artisans and fewer not-fully-baked clay idols of deities waiting to travel to Puja marquees. Chaina Pal, who has earned the reputation of being one of the first female idol makers of the potters’ colony, and whose designs travelled far and wide even in China, is upset over how things are turning out to this year.

“We do not know what is going to happen. There is not even 30% of the business that was seen last year. Even those who are giving orders are asking for smaller idols,” Ms. Pal said. The Kumartuli artisan said that there was no clarity on how the Pujas will be held this year, which had affected their business.

Several restrictions

For the thousands of clubs that organise this community celebration, it is the time of year when they start the preparations for erecting the Durga Puja pandal by doing a ‘Khuti Puja’ (a starting ritual). Not only have these events, which brought advertisers and stars to the Puja, faded away, in the wake of restrictions on the number of workers, a significant part of the available resources are being spent on protective gear. One club in Kolkata’s Ultadanga area has put up an image of the Goddess with masks in all hands.

Jayanta Banerjee, one of the organisers of the Chorbagan Durga Puja in north Kolkata said that 30% of the funds have been spent on ensuring that protection is in place for workers. “We cannot even employ more than 10 workers at a time and what is bothering us is that these workers should not get the COVID-19 infection,” he said.

Durga Puja organisers are brainstorming on various ways to ensure that the religious carnival does not spread COVID-19 infections, often employing innovative means that sometimes border on the bizarre.

Creative innovations

Three organisers in a particular neighbourhood of south Kolkata have come together to have a “drive-in darshan”, where people can drive around the three puja pandals, each built around the theme of one of the films in the Apu Trilogy by Satyajit Ray to mark the 100th birth centenary of the legendary filmmaker.

Durga Puja committees are investing in everything from sanitation tunnels and giant projectors to installing ultra violet lights. A puja organiser has plans to close the pandal and switch on UV lights for 15 minutes after every group of devotees visits the pandal to “kill all the virus” and then allow the next group of visitors.

The forum for Durgotsav, a collective of Durga Puja organisers, has announced a number of measures on how can the festival can be organised amidst the pandemic. The forum has made recommendations, including pandals that are not built very high and are sanitised daily.

All eyes are, however, on how the West Bengal government will control large gatherings during the festival?

From Holi to Eid-ul Fitr, West Bengal, often referred to as the land of ‘baro maase tero parbon’ (13 festival in 12 months) has witnessed muted celebrations of all festivals for several months. Social and political observers feel that it will not be possible for the State to completely put the Durga Puja festival on hold.

Driver of economy

Not only does the festival has a strong emotive appeal among the people but it is one of major drivers of the State’s economy. Estimates made by different Chambers of Commerce over the past few years have revealed that the economy of the Durga Puja festival in West Bengal runs into thousands of crores of rupees. A report by ASSOCHAM in 2013 had pegged festival economy at ₹25,000 crore and (then) growing at 35%. The Indian Chamber of Commerce pegged the Durga Puja economy at no less than ₹50,000 crore in Bengal. Even this could be an underestimate because such studies are not carried out regularly.

“As the national economy is contracting this year, according to some by 5-10%, we expect the Durga Puja economy of Bengal to contract by the same, likely on the higher side. As uncertainty grips people, they hold on to their wallets, in the fear of a job loss tomorrow. The festival [usually] creates a huge demand for new dresses, where reportedly there is a contraction of 50%,” Rajiv Singh, ICC’s director general, said.

Mr. Singh added that Pujas would be held this year, albeit on a lower scale, and the focus should be on lowering the income inequality, and bringing back the smile to the face of the deprived and the needy. The ICC official also suggested that the negative impact on the economy can be allayed by the government to some extent through grants to local clubs.

There are about 28,000 community pujas in West Bengal, the number of Durga Pujas in Kolkata alone is about 3,000. Over the past two years the West Bengal government has been giving dole to registered clubs for organising community Durga Puja, a move that was challenged in the High Court, but the State government’s decision prevailed. The amount was increased to ₹25,000 for every club in 2019 by the State government.

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