Hastings Jute Mill — rich past, fraying future

Jayanta Mallick Kolkata | Updated on January 20, 2018

The Hastings Jute Mill in Hooghly stands on more than 60 Bigahs of land. It was earlier known as the Rishra Bagan, and was the property of Warren Hastings, Governor General of Fort William - Photo: ASHOKE CHAKRABARTY   -  BusinessLine

The two-storey country retreat of Warren Hastings, overlooking a lawn that rolls down to the river Hooghly, stands imposingly.

An entrance with dark stairs of a Second World War bunker breaks the sweep of the lawn. Behind all these, a high wall blocks the roar of hundreds of looms and spindles of a jute mill.

The Hastings Mill, arguably colonial India’s first jute bag-making factory, has a baggage of history but not much of a healthy industrial economics to operate in.

Started in 1875 with 230 looms by the Birkmyre Brothers, it was built on the sprawling estate of East India Company’s first Governor-General of Fort William in Bengal.

The mill compound on the western bank of the Hooghly at Rishra, 25 km north off Kolkata, sports the Spartan house with a dance hall and a huge veranda that entertained the British gantry. It also saw the Allied Air Force use it as its headquarters in India to support Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces against the Japanese air power in the Burma Theatre.

Like the over-a-century old Lancashire boiler – the 40-feet signature brick chimney and the associated early industrial legacy of the country – the East India Company remnants, and a wide jetty and the airbase bunkers are now witness to the historical vicissitudes.

The over 3,000-worker-strong mill currently runs two shifts. Though surviving the odds of higher raw jute prices and lower realisations from the government orders, quintessentially Hastings represents the gloomy present of the ‘golden’ fibre textiles industry.

The mill has seen change of hands, losses, frequent strikes by workers in the past and returned from the brink of insolvency. Sanjay Kajaria, MD of Murlidhar Ratanlal Exports, owner of Hastings Mill since 1994 as also of two other mills on the Hooghly banks with a past, seems to be in a dilemma.

“Keeping the mill viable and maintaining the heritage is a struggle,” he said. For example, he explained the mill’s original system of pumping and storing water from the Hooghly was inoperative after Allied Force closed the base.

“We have to run costlier bore well pumps. All the machinery of the mill, which were dismantled, and fixed after the departure of the force, had lost their alignment reducing productivity substantially,” he added.

In the post-independence period, the romance of jute disappeared quickly amid shortage of quality fibre, shrinking market and militant trade unionism. Despite all these, he sees a future of this natural fibre textiles and the mill, which he bought in 1994, in the not-too-distant future.

Published on May 12, 2016

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