ISSN (Print) - 0012-9976 | ISSN (Online) - 2349-8846

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Unthreading Partition

The Politics of Jute Sharing between Two Bengals

This article studies the impact of partition on the jute industry of Bengal. The new international border separating India and East Bengal put the jute producing areas and the jute mills in two separate countries. Though both the governments initially agreed to cooperate with each other in matters of jute cultivation and marketing, in reality jute diplomacy was complex and conflict-ridden. To become self-sufficient in the jute economy, East Bengal invested in jute mills and began to develop Chittagong port to export raw jute. India, on the other hand, encouraged jute cultivation. Both the countries set up customs and check posts at the border to curb smuggling of jute. Thus, the untangling of Bengal’s jute economy was integrally linked with nation-building initiatives. Moreover, the Indo–Pakistan jute diplomacy encouraged the worldwide shift from jute to jute substitutes in the 1950s.

From the middle of the 19th century, jute emerged as the most important packaging material across the world. While colonial Bengal was the chief producer of this fibre, Dundee, in Scotland, was the initial hub of jute manufacturing industry. From the late 1850s, a few mills started cropping up near Calcutta. Towards the end of the century, Dundee’s prominence began to decline, and Calcutta emerged as the capital of the jute manufacturing industry. In 1911–12, Bengal produced 8 million jute bales (one bale =1.8 quintal) whereas the global demand was for about 9 million bales. By 1914, the Calcutta mills were consuming 50% of the total crop that the region was producing (Sethia 1996: 83). Moreover, jute and jute products now constituted the largest share of India’s export. Thus, the world was becoming increasingly dependent on Bengal for the raw fibre and for their gunny bags and jute sacks (Sethia 1996: 83). While the jute industry went through ups and downs in the 1920s and 1930s, World War II brought back prosperity to the mills and fields. However, the jute trade suffered a severe blow with the partition of British India.

The border between East Bengal and India separated Bengal’s jute cultivating areas from the mills. East Bengal received more than 75% of the total jute-growing land of undivided India, but did not have a single mill. India had 106 mills (Ahmad 1950: 184), most of which were near Calcutta, in the districts of Howrah, Hooghly, and some in 24 Parganas. Moreover, Calcutta was practically the only port through which the Bengal jute used to be exported. Most jute baling centres were also located in and around the city whereas East Bengal only had a few of them. Not surprisingly, the effect of partition was immediately felt on the jute industry. As early as October 1947, the Trade Commissioner of the British government in Calcutta reported that the arrival of the total amount of jute to the city was two-thirds of the normal volume.1 Five jute mills in West Bengal closed down within a year of partition (Sarkar 1989: 15). The partition affected the price of the fibre as well. The jute fibre (Jat variety of jute) that was selling at about ₹16 per maund (1 maund = 37.32 kilograms) in 1945–46, cost ₹29 per maund in 1946–47 and ₹42.5 in 1947–48 (IIRDS 1977: 8).

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Updated On : 31st Jan, 2018
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