BARPETA, April 29 � The heritage bell-metal industry at Sarthebari in Barpeta district is facing serious problems and if the problems are not solved at the earliest, it will be pushed to the verge of extinction in the days to come. Notable among the problems are the shortage of raw materials, unusual rise in the prices of raw materials, non-availability of charcoal, the fuel used to melt the raw metal, lack of proportionate prices in the market and lack of healthcare facilities for the artisans. This was highlighted by the management body of the Assam Cooperative Bell Metal Utensils Manufacturing Society Limited and the leaders of the Assam Kahar Silpi Sangh in a joint press conference in the head office campus of the cooperative society recently.
The press meet addressed by Dwijen Deka, president of both the cooperative society and the artisans� association, Prahlad Talukdar, vice president of the cooperative society, Pranjit Deka, secretary of the cooperative society and Phulen Tamuli and Bhabesh Talukdar, secretary and ex-secretary of the artisans� association respectively, gave a detailed account of the strength and problems of the industry and demanded immediate measures to save the industry from the verge of extinction as well as mitigate the woes of the families associated with the old traditional industry.
As informed, there are as many as 280 production units (locally known as garshals)of bell-metal utensils in and around Sarthebari. Almost 1,800 artisans are directly associated with the production process. With a view to streamline the production and marketing, the Assam Cooperative Bell Metal Utensils Manufacturing Society Limited was established way back in 1933. It was registered with the Registrar of Cooperative Society on August 18, 1939 under Registration No. 9/39/0. There are 1,996 shareholders of the society with 5,225 shares. The government shares of the society total 1,73,000 and the permitted limit of transaction is Rs 20 lakh. Besides the elected management committee, 45 employees are engaged to conduct the affairs of the society. Headquartered at Sarthebari, the society has its branch-cum-sales outlets at Sarthebari Natun Bazar, Fancy Bazar, Paltan Bazar, Dispur and Ganeshguri in greater Guwahati, Golaghat, Sivasagar, Jorhat, Tezpur, North Lakhimpur and Pathshala.
If the cooperative society has to maintain all the production units, it requires more than 400 tonnes of raw materials every year. But with its present financial strength, it is not possible to procure such a huge amount of raw materials. It is capable only of procuring 40-45 tonnes and hence most of the artisans have to depend on private suppliers.
They stated that the supply of scrapped bell-metal, the main raw material of the industry, is controlled by some non-Assamese businessmen and the price is also determined by them. As a result, the price of the raw materials fluctuates very often, mostly towards the upward level and there is artificial scarcity during the peak season of the year. Bell metal is an alloy of zinc and copper at 22:78 proportion and both the original metals are controlled by the Government. But the import of the scrapped has been decontrolled and it is a monopolistic market by a handful of businessmen of the State. They opined that if the Government establishes a processing unit at Sarthebari and supplies the zinc and copper at subsidised prices, the making of bell-metal would not only be easier but it would also be available to the poor artisans at low cost and they would be able to work 12 months a year continuously.
Though a rolling machine was established in the society�s head office campus in 1954, it became useless after a few years. A common facility centre established in Paka Reserve in 1973 didn�t start functioning at all. Both the government endeavours were nipped in the bud due to the lack of proper attitude of the government authorities. Since then, no government initiative has been noticed to improve the condition of the industry.
They informed that the Government of Assam had refunded the society the sales tax paid by them twice, once in 1986 and the other in 2001-02 and they have also been exempted from the purview of the tax since 1985. It has provided the cooperative society great financial relief. Besides, the State Government had sanctioned an amount of Rs 1.5 crore for the modernisation of the industry but the benefit was not reaped by the artisans due to the malafide intention of the officials of the Industry department of the State, they alleged.
In the present competitive scenario, existence of such cottage industry has become a challenge and the leadership of both the organisations have demanded a yearly grant from the Government which will enable the cooperative society to procure raw materials and streamline the marketing of the products.
As informed by them, charcoal is the main fuel used in melting the hard material in the process of shaping into different sizes. The procurement of the fuel has become a great hurdle for the artisans since the imposition of the ban on the felling of trees by the Supreme Court of India.
They demanded that the Government should give them a licence to collect woods scattered in the deep forest either due to natural calamities, age or any other reasons so that the artisans can collect sufficient charcoal required for their use. The leadership was optimistic about the future of the industry and expressed the hope that it would live as long as Assamese culture would be alive. �It will live up to the age of our Bihu and namghars as most of the products produced by the artisans are used in religious and cultural programmes in the Assamese society,� they opined. They exhorted the Government to comprehend the necessity of the industry associated with the Assamese psyche and come forward with specific plans to save it from the clutches of non-Assamese monopolistic merchants.