This is a piece I wrote for the October Edition of Equilibria, a magazine run by the students of Gokhale Institute of Politics and Economics. The article was written when the Ganesh festival in Pune was in its heyday- sometime around mid-September.
It’s the Ganeshotsav fervour in Pune. Like every year, the city has ramped up with pandals, shows, decorations, lighting and music. People go out every evening to see the themes and shows hosted by the Ganesh Mandals all over Pune. The jostling, police bandobast and the terrible traffic jams, milling crowds, overfull eateries; all of this is very much Ganeshotsav.
This entire event of course, centers around one force, the Bappa. Artisans create differently themed Bappa idols for the Mandals. So you are bound to find a Ganpati Bappa idol in a Saibaba avatar or a Bal Ganesh idol somewhere or a dancing Ganesh reminiscent of the Nataraj somewhere. Interestingly, the Bappa idol themes also enjoy a huge connect with what is popular in media or cinema. This year, with the huge box office success of the mythologically themed movie Bahubali, one sees a lot of Mandals with Bahubali Ganesh as the chief attraction for drawing crowds!
If the demand for these different idols is created by the Ganesh Mandals in Pune and elsewhere in Mahaashtra, the supply of the same largely comes from the definitive idol making hub of Maharashtra, Pen. Pen is a village situated near Panvel and is famous for its idol making skills. Pen idols are not only supplied to Mandals in Maharastra but are also enjoying a huge success with exports. While it is difficult to put down a very formal number on such an unorganized business, one estimate is that Pen supplied 16 lakh idols, big and small, this year to Mandals as well as to retail end customers who celebrate the Ganeshotsav at home.
Even while I was reading about these numbers in the local newspaper, my mind went back to Pen. It was the year 2007. I was then working with the Mahratta Chamber of Commerce, Industries and Agriculture (MCCIA). MCCIA was coming up with a report on the impact of Ganeshotsav on the local socio-economic-political structure of Pune and I decided to visit Pen to meet with the artisans and understand the issues involved in supplying Ganesh idols on such a huge scale.
It was one colourful visit. As you enter Pen, there are three main streets that are full of Ganapati idol makers. As far as the eye can reach, there are only Bappa idols. We first visited Mr. Deodhar, one of the very well known artisans in Pen. He spoke about how the ecological concerns had raised the demand for the Shadu-clay idols. But it’s much easier to make PoP idols using basic moulds whereas Shadu idols require some level of crafting, hence raising demand for artisans as well as the costs. He also was vocal about how difficult it is to get the next generation into the idol making business when youngsters really want to move to the cities in the search of a more stable job with higher pay packets.
All idol-makers voiced similar concerns about getting skilled manpower. Skilled artisans (especially those who draw the eyes for the idol) are hard to come by. There were nearly 4 idol-makers who rued how difficult it had been that year to access these skilled artisans. “Why? What’s so special about this year? I am sure you must have faced this problem every year,” I said.
Imagine my shock when one of the artisans said, “Yes, we do face the problem every year. But this year the problem has become even more acute because Reliance is sourcing land for their SEZ in Pen!”
And suddenly, my eyes started seeing the tell-tale signs. Oh, how could I have missed it! I was so involved in seeing the idols that I had failed to take cognition of the huge signboards carrying the Reliance logo, the fencing around vacant lands, the banners outlining the protest issues around me. I was standing spang in the middle of the Raigad land acquisition program.
The SEZ act was passed in 2005 and Reliance had decided to put up a huge SEZ in Raigad district. The acquisition was happening fast and furious and on enquiring about it, a couple of farmers told me that the going rate for land was between R. 8 lakh per acre to Rs. 12 lakh per acre. “A skilled artisan gets Rs.100 per idol he finishes. Who is going to work for that rate when you have just sold your land for Rs. 8 lakh?”said one idol-maker. Another made a very interesting observation. “Madam, you will be hard pressed to find good schools and hospitals in this area. But there’s a Bolero standing in front of every house in my village.”
And that was really true. As sudden cash entered the village through the land deals, families didn’t know how to handle those windfalls. There were reports aplenty, of families having been destroyed due to frittering away the money on cars and lottery tickets and having no back up since they’d lost the land. Reliance too intervened with an NGO activity; later deals saw FDs or insurance policies being given to the families instead of cash.
As an economist, it was interesting for me to see how the plans for the Navi Mumbai SEZ had changed the entire socio-economic fabric of an artisan village. As fringe land around the village was acquired and became more expensive, the Ganapati idol making units, whose main requirement is land, had been forced to lease out land farther away from the village. New villages came up with cheaper land and hence cheaper idols. Some idol workshops relocated to these villages, leaving the workshops in Pen vacant. Artisan availability went down drastically.
It’s 8 years after that visit. The SEZ never really went through. There were extensions given on land acquisition but the program was never completed. The SEZ wave came in and went away, but in its wake left behind a lot of disturbances in a quaint, laid-back, artistic village known for creating the Lord of Wisdom.