How Jait, village of tulsi mala makers, was impacted by the lockdown
Jait, a village close to the religious town Vrindavan is the largest suppliers of tulsi malas in Uttar Pradesh. With the lockdown, all religious places, including Vrindavan, were closed down. This has affected the villagers whose sole source of income was from this unique profession.
Sitting on a small wooden slab seat, Chandrapal Singh operates a strange-looking apparatus: a rectangular frame fixed on a board with vertical protrusions from either side – all made of wood. As he moves a violin-bow-like stick with his left hand, the machine carves out a bead out of a brown dry stem of basil plant (Tulsi).
“These beads sustain the villagers, providing us employment and keeping us away from poverty. Be it a 10-year-old or the oldest in the family,” he says, holding the grey beads in his hands.
“But the lockdown is taking us back to poverty,” he adds.
Jait, a village about 7 km from Vrindavan, one of the most famous religious places in India, is the largest producer of tulsi malas (rosaries) in Uttar Pradesh. Considered sacred in Hindu religion, these malas are high in demand in and around Hindu religious sites.
“About 90% of people here are in this profession,” says Deewan Singh, a villager. According to the 2011 census, Jait’s population is close to 10,000.
As Vrindavan was closed down during the lockdown, putting an end to the arrival of scores of pilgrims and tourists, the demand for tulsi malas also plummeted.
“These streets used to be full of people,” says Nagendra Singh, who sells watermelons in front of a deserted Prem Mandir in Vrindavan, after his restaurant could not be opened due to the lockdown.
According to UP government data, in 2018, about 1.48 crore domestic tourists visited Vrindavan, making it among the top three visited places in the state. Govardhan, another nearby religious tourist spot, also attracts around the same number of visitors.
“I used to sell around Rs 2 lakh worth tulsi malas in a month. But after the lockdown, there is hardly any sales,” says Sriram Sharma, a shop owner. While 80% of his sales were domestic, about 20% was through exports, mainly through the religious sect ISKCON.
The fall in demand now means that the artisans of Jait struggle for their livelihood.
“The price of a rosary that we used to sell for Rs 15-20, for instance, has now fallen to Rs 5. Even at that price nobody is buying. So much of stock is now piled up. The middlemen are also taking advantage of this,” says Deewan Singh.
“We are surviving with the free ration that government gives. And the villagers those who have some stocks of grains are distributing it to those who don’t, to make sure nobody stays hungry in the village,” he adds.
It is in the last two decades or so that the villagers -- who were earlier farmers – shifted to the profession of tulsi mala making. It provided them with a better and stable income. The only other similar place in the Hindi belt is villages like Kaman in Rajasthan’s Bharatpur village.
“Earlier the malas were made in Vrindavan itself. But as demand grew, we taught the skill to some villagers and outsourced the work. They, in turn, taught more people in the village,” says Sharma.
Most of the villagers also say that they had no option as their agricultural land on the other side of the National Highway was acquired by a private Real Estate Developer for a construction project. “We were cheated,” is a common refrain in the village.
The villagers who own large farmlands cultivate basil plants in the four-five months starting from July. Once harvested, the plants are dried and sold to the rest of the villagers who are the artisans. They make the malas. The finished rosaries are bought by middlemen who in turn sell them in Vrindavan and elsewhere.
“The problem is faced now by artisans, as they have already bought the raw materials from the farmers,” says Chandrapal Singh. “The middlemen, on the other hand, had already been paying only a third of the final price of these malas. Now, not even that.”
But a heartwarming thing about the villagers was that their hardships didn’t stop them coming together to help the migrant labourers who they see walking on the nearby highway. UP is the largest source of migrant labourers in India, and tens of thousands of them have been walking hundreds of kilometres to reach their homes ever since the lockdown began.
“The sights were unbearable. They were hungry and thirsty. We put together whatever money we could manage, made food using the grains that everyone contributed. We fed about 200 people a day with sabji, puri etc. We had to spend at least Rs 6000 a day,” says Sanjay Yadav, a local who was sitting in the front yard of a building close to the highway where others were playing cards.
“We don’t know when these difficulties will be over. Things don’t seem to be in our control,” says Deewan Singh. He thinks a divine intervention is needed.
“We do Yagna to the goddess to make her stop corona and all these problems,“ he adds, pointing to a small altar made outside the house.
As the lockdown eases, and religious places open up, it seems only gods can solve their problem now.
watch the video story:
(This is a part of a series of ground reports on the migrant crisis in Uttar Pradesh by our reporters who undertook a 600 km bicycle journey from Delhi to Lucknow. See the CoronaCyclips blog here.)