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Mainstream, VOL LIX No 8, New Delhi, February 6, 2021

Livelihood and Religion: Impact of COVID19 lockout on unskilled workers in the religious sites | Sengupta and Pal

Saturday 6 February 2021

by Dr. Atanu Sengupta and Dr Asish Kumar Pal

“Bread! Bread! I do not believe in a God, who cannot give me bread here, giving me eternal bliss in heaven.” Swami Vivekananda

Abstract:

Covid -19 pandemic has created a lot of problems in every sectors of the economy across the world. It has caused the closure situation of religious places all over India. As a result a lot of people who earns daily wage on the basis of these places are in dire condition. These workers are daily labourers who earn a very little amount of money and maintain the family along with poor socio - economic conditions in the society. They are an integral part of the unorganised sector of India. Their sufferings know no artificial boundaries erected by man. We have selected two religious places for two separate religions in the Hooghly district of West Bengal. The first one is "Tarakeswar temple‟ (Baba Taraknath) for the pilgrimage of Hindus and another is "Furfurasharif‟ for the Muslims. Our paper focuses on the impact of covid related lockdown on the economic agents who live on the basis of these pilgrimage centres. This analysis shows a negative economic consequence for these marginal people in the era of lockdown.

Key Words: Religious, Pilgrimage, Workers, Places, Tarakeswar, Furfurasharif

Introduction:

It has been a very common dilemma of the “secularists” to look at religion something distinct and separate from the everyday course of life. This is frantically absurd in a developing country like India where religion plays a very important role in livelihood generation (Sengupta and Nath 2012, 2016). The site itself becomes an important economic unit with the role of a big consumer and employer. Besides, many informal activities thrive around it. Neglecting the study of religion in any discourse of livelihood is a lacuna that still plagues our “secular” analysts. The spread of Covid19 has shown how this neglect can become a major dilemma in our thinking. Thus when the government announced partial opening up of religious site, it is not only the lure of after world but a basic dilemma in mitigating the huge loss of livelihood that closure of these sites have generated. Our “secular” thinkers are oblivious of this. A dominant leader from the leftist labour front of West Bengal gloated at the closure of Jagannath temple at Puri. This is a sad reminder of how far our leftist leaders have trodden off the popular psyche.

Religious tourism is an important aspect of tourism industry itself. In fact, it is the oldest form of tourism. Even when it was difficult for ordinary tourists to brave the danger and hazards of travelling, pilgrims took all hazards to embrace their belief in the sacredness of a place. It was believed that many of the Mayans towns in Mesoamerica were pilgrim centres in nature. Mecca in Arabia or the Vatican City in Rome had strong pilgrimage attractions. One of the earliest literature in English, The Canterbury Tales by Chaucer deals with the voyage of the pilgrims.

In India, many places were denoted as holy in our ancient literature. It was the Buddhist tradition first. One of the reason for the Chinese travellers Fa Hien (Faxian) and Hiuen Tsang (Xuanzang) to visit India was to pay pilgrimage to the scared places related to Buddhism. Later Hinduism also appropriated the concept of tirtha- literally meaning holy places. In later period many local pilgrimage centres were developed for all religions in many parts of India. We have selected two such places from West Bengal. Livelihood of a host of people depends on the running of these pilgrimage centres. We can treat them as religious utility providers. In this paper we study the impact of Covid related lockdown on the life of these utility providers.

Covid -19 pandemic has created a lot of problems in every sectors of the economy across the world. It has caused the closure situation of religious places all over India. The government has instructed to close all the crowded religious places during the lockdown period throughout the country. As a result a lot of people who earns daily wage on the basis of these places are in poverty. The small street shoppers, hawkers on footpath, the workers of several hotels and restaurants and pandas who act as guide of travellers during visit and activating religious chores in the religious places in India are all adversely affected.

Mallapur (April, 2020), opined that “The closing down of the iconic Taj Mahal last month is an evocative symbol of how India‟s travel and tourism landscape has changed due to Covid-19. The country‟s travel and tourism sector, more dependent than others on the free and confident movement of people, is staring at millions of disappearing jobs and a grey future”. Many of these workers are daily labourers whose earnings are insufficient and uncertain. They have spent their lives in this profession gaining very little skill that can fetch them earning outside this sector.

During the lockdown they have lost their jobs due to the restrictions imposed by the government. As these places are overcrowded by the tourists and religious people in the normal days before starting lockdown the government has been forced to close these spots to combat the spread of coronavirus disease. There are many religious places and worships of god in India. To our knowledge, there is no empirical study as yet to find out the misery condition of the workers who are directly or indirectly dependent on religious places due to closure of sites for lockdown. This is a pioneer study in this regard.

We have selected two religious places of Hooghly district, West Bengal belonging to two different religious affiliations. The first one is "Tarakeswar temple‟ (Baba Taraknath) for the pilgrimage of Hindus and another is "Furfurasharif‟ for the Muslims. These two famous places are basically rural based area. Although Tarakeswar is technically a municipality, it is rural-based. It is very small town and semi — urban.

Our paper focuses on the impact of covid related lockdown on the economic agents who live on the basis of these pilgrimage centres.

Description of selected two pilgrimage sites:

Tarakeswar is famous for ’baba Taraknath’. Taraknath is the name which has been given to ’Lord Shiva’ and the temple has been dedicated to ’Lord Shiva’, who at the temple revered with the name of „Taraknath‟. The temple is one of the well known temples of the state of West Bengal, India. It is situated in Tarakeswar city of Hooghly district. It is crowded on occasions related to the worship of the deity Lord Shiva. (Source: en.wikipedia.tarakeswar.org). The place is so important that the noted Bengali novelist Saratchandra Chattopadhyay starts one of his chapters of the famous novel “Pallisamaj” (The Village Society) here. The hero and heroine of the novel meet near the sacred pond of Taraknath temple.

Furfurashaarif ( also known as Furfura, Phurphura, Furfura Barbara Sharif) is a village in Janvipara Community Development Block of Serampore subdivision in the Hooghly district. It is a holy place for Muslims. The Masjid built by Muquish is site of Muslim pilgrimage, especially during the Pirmela. The most important place within the  "Furfurashaarif‟ is the "Mazdur Sharif‟ (Tomb) of "Hazrat Abu Bakar Siddique‟ and his five sons, popularly known as the"Panch Huzur Keblah’. (Source: en.wikipedia.furfuasharif.org).

Empirical study:

The data is collected from the nearest small shoppers, street hawkers, workers of hotels and restaurants and the panda (in case of Tarakeswar temple) or the ancestors of Pir family ( in case of Furfurasharif). We have selected these 100 daily wage earners and stratified these utility providers into several groups (Table 1). The data is collected through interviewing process from these several groups. We have tried to identify and point out socio-economically background of these utility providers

The information has been collected on parameters relating to the age, family member, educational status, housing condition, types of shops, year of engagement with the profession, level of income and expenditure of family, alternative sources of income, government assistance during lockdown period and perception about the impacted of lockdown. These socio-economic features are identified and discussed following the tabular representation.

Table 1: stratified sample of utility providers among the several fields

Types of utility providers No
Small shoppers 20
Street hawkers 20
Labourers of hotels 20
Small tea or pan sellers 20
Panda (religious workers) 20
Total 100

First we consider the demographic structure of the religious utility providers. About 45% of our respondents are between 26-40 years of age while 22% are in the lower age group. However, 20% are in 40-60 years age group and only 13% are above 60 (Table 2).

Table 2: Classification of age group among the sample of respective religious places

Types of utility providers Age Group (Years)
15-25 26-40 41-60 Above 60
Small shoppers 04 10 04 02
Street hawkers 05 08 05 02
Hotel workers 06 07 04 03
Small tea or pan sellers 03 11 02 04
Panda or workers of Pir baba 04 09 05 02

In case of family size (Table 3), 31% respondents are from families with 5-8 family members, 58% is in the small sized family while 11% of the sample is in the larger sized family group.

Table 3: Information regarding family size of several economic agents

Types of utility providers Family Size
1-4 5-8 Above 8
Small shoppers 12 07 01
Street hawkers 10 08 02
Hotel workers 09 09 02
Small tea or pansellers 14 03 03
Panda or workers of Pir baba 13 04 03

Considering the years of engagement (Table 4), we see only 19% are engaged with the profession above 20 years, 32% have1-10 years of job experience while some others (49%) have experience of 11-20 years.

Table 4: Data about the years of engagement of profession among the respondents

Types of utility providers Years of Engagement
1-10 11-20 Above 20
Small shoppers 06 11 03
Street hawkers 07 11 02
Hotel workers 10 08 02
Small tea or pan sellers 04 09 05
Panda or workers of Pir baba 05 10 05

Now, we come to education (Table 5). 52% of our sampled utility providers have1 -8 years of schooling. The higher education is rare (only 13%) that indicates maximum education of graduation. And the rest is from class 9-12.

Table 5: Educational status of the different types of sample

Types of utility providers (1-8 ) class (9-12) class Above 12 class
Small shoppers 06 09 05
Street hawkers 12 07 01
Hotel workers 13 06 01
Small tea or pan sellers 11 07 02
Panda or workers of pir baba 10 06 04

We have come to know about their housing condition (Table 6). They basically live along with family members in kancha (mud built houses) (46%). Recently near about 54% have built paka (concrete) houses under the scheme of „Prime Miinister Abas Yojona’ (PMAY) but they are not well furnished. So environment of housing condition is not healthy at all.

Table 6: Housing condition among the respondents

Types of utilityproviders Pakka Kancha
Small shoppers 12 08
Street hawkers 09 11
Hotel workers 09 11
Small tea or pansellers 11 09
Panda or workers of pir baba 13 07

As to the economic background (Table 7), most of them come from non-farm families (49%) and relatively lesser from agricultural families (32%). Actually they are all from marginal families in rural area. Only a very lower percentage is in business and government services respectively 12% and 6%.

Table 7: Details of family occupation (father) of the different types of people in the selected religious places

Types of utility providers Family Occupations
Agriculture Non-farm sector Business Government service
Small shop keepers 07 09 02 02
Street hawkers 05 11 03 01
Hotel workers 06 13 01 ----
Small tea or pan sellers 07 10 03 -----
Panda or workers of pirbaba 08 06 03 03

Next we look at Table 8 that describes the landholding of these utility providers. 58% of the respondents have little or a very small amount of agricultural land. 33% of them are small land holding families. And only 9% belong to larger land holding family.

Table 8: Landholding patterns among the respondents

Types of utility providers Amount of land owned
Marginal l (0-4)bigha Small(5-10) bigha Large (>10) bigha
Small shop keepers 11 05 04
Street hawkers 13 06 01
Hotel workers 15 04 01
Small tea or pan sellers 11 08 01
Panda or workers of Pir baba 08 10 02

From the income structure in table: 9, it is clear that the people from religious sector are rather poor. About 47% of them earn from Rs. 200-400 per day while only 13% earns daily above Rs. 400. Only 4% of respondents get money above Rs.400. Again a sizable portion (40%) earns less than Rs.200 rate per day. It is evident that they are all involved in ’No work no pay‟ system. Hence in this lockdown period even their meagre earning has been trampled to ground. They are living on borrowing or dissaving from whatever they could have saved in sunny days. In many cases today they are simply living on alms or starving.

Table 9: Estimated daily income of selected economic agents in pre-COVID times

Types of utility providers Estimated daily income (in Rupees)
< Rs. 200 Rs. 200-400 > Rs 400
Small shop keepers 06 11 03
Street hawkers 09 08 03
Hotel workers 10 09 01
Small tea or pan sellers 11 07 02
Panda or workers of Pir baba 04 12 04

Next we enquired about their alternative source of earnings (Table 10). They have acknowledged that they do not have any other source of income. Only a tiny percentage (19%) is lucky to have an alternative source to depend on.

Table 10: Identified any other source of income

Types of utility providers Yes No
Small shop keepers 03 17
Street hawkers 03 17
Hotel workers 02 18
Small tea or pan sellers 04 16
Panda or workers of Pir baba 07 13

From the response about jobless situation among the several utility providers (Table 11) in these sites, it is observed that only 18% of these working groups had a job during the lockdown in other fields. And maximum (82%) have lost the jobs.

Table 11: Response about the jobless situation during the lockdown

Types of utility providers Having job Not having job
Small shop keepers 06 14
Street hawkers 02 18
Hotel workers 02 18
Small tea or pan sellers 03 17
Panda or workers of Pir baba 05 15

The details information of beneficiaries of various cards holding among the respondents of these economic agents is collected (table: 12). This shows 48 % of respondents holds job card. As the major percentage (52%) are in this profession for a long time, they do not show interest to hold job card for work. 47% of them has BPL card while 53% of them do not hold such type of card that will help to get food in subsidised rate by government. Only 42% the sampled utility providers have opened bank account under the scheme of "Jondhon Yojona’ by central government. Therefore others are not able to enjoy "Direct Cash Benefit‟ by the Central government.

Table 12: Types of government card holding facilities by the utility providers

Types of utility providers BPL Janadhan yojona account Job card for 100 days
Small shop keepers 06 08 10
Street hawkers 12 11 11
Hotel workers 11 07 07
Small tea or pan sellers 10 09 08
Panda or workers of Pir baba 08 07 12

The information regarding the impact on livelihood by the lockdown is given below (Table 13). 91% of the utility providers have responded their livelihoods have been affected adversely by the coronavirus pandemic.

Table 13: Opinion about impacted livelihood by lockdown of the various people of various profession

Types of utility providers Affected Not Affected No idea
Small shop keepers 15 04 01
Street hawkers 17 01 02
Hotel workers 19 01 ----
Small tea or pan sellers 18 01 01
Panda or workers of Pir baba 19 01 ----

Conclusion:

From the socio-economic analysis of the utility providers of these religious places, we can easily understand that being a marginal earner group of people they are highly affected during lockdown period for closing of these pilgrimage sites. This analysis shows a long-run negative economic consequence for these people who are continuously exposed to this situation across the country. In our study it is seen that a lot of people who earn on the religious places directly and indirectly are affected worst by the pandemic situation. It has cast a serious doubt on their future. We cannot forget the plight of these religious utility providers because we are secular.

References:

Chakroborty Prafulla (1984), Social profile of Tarakeswar, Calcutta Firma KLM Pvt. Ltd., Kolkata

Chattapadhyay, Amiyakumar (2005), ltihasayer Prakkhapota "Baba Taraknath" (in Bengali), Calcutta, Sree Tara Press

Mallapur, Chaitanya (April 2020), India’s Covid-19 lockdown may cause 38 million job losses in the travel and tourism industry https://scroll.in/article/959045/indias-covid-19-lockdown-may-cause-38-million-job-losses-in-the-travel-and-tourism-industry

Robert, H. Nelson (2002), “Religion Economics and Market Paradox”: An Interview, an article subscribe to Religion and Liberty.

Sengupta A. & K. Nath (2012), “Unskilled workers in the cultural market: A case study of the utility providers at a religious site”, Indian Journal of Labour Economics, 55(2).

Sengupta A. & K. Nath (2016), Cultural Markets and Utility Providers: A study of a religious site in India, Kalpaz Publications, Delhi

Timur, Kuran (2004), Islam and Mammon: The Economic Predicaments of Islamism, Princeton: Princeton University Press

Tarakeswar https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tarakeswar

Furfura Sharif https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Furfura_Sharif

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(Authors: Dr. Atanu Sengupta, Professor, Economics Department, Burdwan University, West Bengal, India E-mail: sengupta_atanu[at]yahoo.com
and Dr Asish Kumar Pal, Assistant Professor, Economics Department, Tarakeswar Degree College, Tarakeswar, Hooghly, West Bengal, India E-mail: asish.kr.pal[at]gmail.com )

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