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Complaint on ‘illegal’ jute bag import

Calcutta, Aug. 1: The jute commissioner has written to the Union textile ministry, the directorate general of supplies and disposals (DGS&D) and the Indian Jute Mills Association about how some mills are “illegally” importing cheap jute bags from Bangladesh and Nepal and selling them to government agencies.

The letters have been sent against the backdrop of a tussle between jute mill owners and the jute commissioner over procurement of jute bags — done by the DGS&D — for the Food Corporation of India and state-level food-procuring agencies.

A recent probe by the jute commissioner’s office revealed that some mills were “illegally” importing jute bags from Bangladesh and Nepal and procuring used bags from Punjab to sell them to the agencies.

“Every year, the government procures jute bags worth around Rs 4,500 crore from the mills to help those involved in farming and working in jute factories. But it has been found that at least 10 to 12 jute mills in Bengal are importing cheap jute bags from neighbouring countries and selling them to the government at a higher price,” said an official in the office of the jute commissioner.

The jute commissioner has stopped or cut down on procurement of bags from these mills.

The jute industry is heavily dependent on government orders for bags. Industry estimates suggest that over 54 per cent of the total jute goods manufactured and 64 per cent of bags are procured by government agencies. In an attempt to support the jute industry, the Centre has made the use of jute bags mandatory for packaging 90 per cent of the foodgrains produced and 20 per cent of the sugar output.

“Our analysis showed that several mills consumed less power and spent substantially less on wages against the total production shown by them. An indirect pointer to possible supply of second hand/imported jute bags,” the jute commissioner has written in his letter to the textiles ministry.

Two mills have moved Calcutta High Court challenging the commissioner’s order.

“There are some issues and we are trying to address them through discussions,” said Subrata Gupta, the jute commissioner.

But sources in the jute industry said the legal tussle might be the beginning of a protracted battle between the office of the jute commissioner and the industry, which has demanded government intervention to ease a “crisis”.

The “crisis” has led to the closure of a number of jute mills in Bengal.

Sources said some mill owners had reduced the number of weekly shifts from 18 to 8 or 10, resulting in loss of employment for more than one lakh mill workers.

The jute industry, in its appeal to the Bengal government, has proposed the use of jute bags for rice and potato packaging, besides demanding changes in labour laws.

Raghavendra Gupta, the president of the Indian Jute Mills Association, said the jute commissioner had “identified” some mills that were importing jute products from Nepal and Bangladesh. “The imported bags have to bear the label of the originating country. The jute commissioner has taken up the issue with customs. If these mills are found guilty, action needs to be taken. However, it would be incorrect to blame the entire industry for the actions of a few errant mills,” he said.