An alternative account of 100 days work: Condition of Joynagar’s mowa workers

March 6, 2011

By Arijit. Translated by Koel Das and Siddhartha Mitra, Sanhati

This article appeared in ShramikShakti, Dec 2010. Click here to read the Bengali version »

Bengalis, as connoisseurs of confections, love a variety of sweetmeats such as the sandesh made with nalen gur and various ‘pitha’s prepared at home during winter. The mowa, a sweetmeat prepared from date palm jaggery (nalen gur) and puffed sugary rice, traditionally from Joynagar in South 24 Parganas district, occupies a special place [1].

Sweetmeats traditionally associated with certain locations are successful because of the easy availability of raw materials and the special knowledge and local expertise needed in preparing these sweets in bulk quantity day after day. Other renowned examples, which have become a part of the food tradition of the state, are Mollachok’s yogurt, Bardhaman’s sitabhog and mihidhana and Krishnanagar’s sarpuriya and sarbhaja.

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But we will not get into the details of history today – let us focus on the mowa workers of Joynagar. The mowa industry has started going wholesale thanks to its prolonged fame. What are the workers doing, and what is their condition?

A number of temporary workshops are set up for business for the three months of winter, when sales peak. Some of these sheds are rented from newly constructed stores, some from struggling video stores, some are only used during the mowa season and remain unused for the rest of the year. Yet others might be on-lien for three months from a regular hotel which remains closed during the mowa season, or belong to the same hotel owner who rents the sheds as storage for different purposes throughout the year. Some might even be temporary constructions of bamboo and dorma which will be dismantled after the season is over.

Owners of these workshops invest their capital from other businesses into this industry for three months. Usually these owners have some understanding with either agents or specific stores in Kolkata. Hence, if you are enjoying Joynagar’s mowa outside Joynagar, there are two intermediaries (the agent and the storekeeper) between the product in the workshop and the customer.

At a workshop we visited, we met seasoned artisans like Kartik Das and Budhisar Das. Inspite of their expertise, they have to work the rest of the year as mason’s helping hands or as van drivers. But why shift to mowa making in the three months of winter?

The work they are involved in during rest of the year has no assurance and at least for these 100 days, their jobs are assured. Moreover, it’s true that they love their craft. Some of these artisans work for the same owner over a period of 25-30 years and when the time comes, they cannot ignore the owner’s call and give up their regular job of driving vans. One should keep in mind that these artisans come because it’s profitable, although the pay is no more than Rs 100 per day. One can imagine the earnings in their other occupations.

The work required is long and hard – apart from a lunch break and an hour’s rest in the afternoon, work starts at seven in the morning and continues till ten o’clock at night. From heating the nalen gur, and creating a counterfeit syrup using sugar and other kinds of gur in another pan, and then mixing them, frying the puffed rice and making murki’s out of them – it certainly is a lot of work. Looking into the details, one can see that from morning to evening, around 15 kg of murki, and at least 10 quintals of mowa are made by these people in a day. It is a large quantity.

The women are more adept in mixing the murki with gur and khir and making the mowa . They also work similar hours, from morning to evening, earning Rs. 80 a day. Sitting in a row, while facing a wall, they make these mowas , almost completely bending over the stool they are sitting on. Obvious effects are pains in the hands and legs, and indigestion. They get some time to complete housework in the morning, before coming to work at 7 am, and then for two hours in the afternoon when they can go home.

What do they do for the rest of the year? They cultivate the little plot of land they have, and cut crops in other farms. Over the last 10 years, there has been a large growth in okra farms around the villages around Jayanagar. They are planted with the long “English Okra” – which is shapely but lacks taste. Some work as maids in the lean periods, or work as ayahs. The right work for the right season!

There are also the workers who pack the mowa . The work consists of making the packets, filling them with a fixed number of mowa’s and tying the packets with red ribbons. They too sit and work the whole day. They are either young boys and girls, or old people. This is unskilled labour. These youth are otherwise jobless, or are hawkers in trains or coolies in stations, or work in clearing gardens, or climbing trees to pluck tender coconuts, and similar work. Their daily wage ranges from 50-60 Rs.

The last link in the chain are the people who deliver the finished products, who buy the gur from the market, check the condition of the puffed rice, monitor the workers, or work as replacements when workers fail to report. They too get 60-70 Rs per day.

However meager these earnings are, it is obvious that the monthly income – from 1.5-2 thousand rupees per month to three thousand per month, is not available at other times of the year. It is not the government or the large corporates, but small local investments, say 2 lakh Rs, that is providing 100 days work for 25/30 people.

Now, the date palm belongs to a certain person, the pitcher belongs to someone else; the mowa is made by another person, while another person sells it. And the public consumes it. So individual ownership of the work exists. Through personal investments, some theft of labour power, and some personal effort, this rural industry seems to be running outside the main economy. The way the mainstream has captured other sectors, there is a fear that one day the Jaynagarer mowa will become Reliance or Haldiram mowa , to be sold in highly priced colourful packets throughout the year.

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Notes

Raw materials include khoi (rice flakes) made from Kanakchur variety of paddy, nalen gur, sugar, other gur, ghee, kheer and garnishing materials like cashew, pistachio, cherries, raisins and cardamoms. First the puffed sweet rice, called murki is prepared, the pans can hold upto 15 kg murki at one go. It requires 3 kg sugar, 4 kg of nalen gur and 4 kg syrup, prepared from sugar and other gur. (Currently this syrup is the main counterfeit for the real ingredient although shop keepers claim mixing the syrup as part of the original recipe. The syrup has a funny name called “kanchi” (scissors) –implying that the syrup plays a major role in ‘cutting’ the essence of the real gur). Remaining ingredient is khoi. Making moa in the oven is an important part of the process.

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