The jute mills of Bengal enjoy an enormous advantage over all their competitors in other countries by being in the home of the raw material. No other country can compete with Bengal in the production of the fibre. Today in over something like a score of districts, comprising about 40 millions of acres, there are only as yet two millions under jute cultivation. The capability for producing the fibre in Bengal is practically illimitable. There is no fear of the demand overtaking the supply for many a long day to come. Every year new territory is being put under cultivation, and the province of Assam (the garden of India) is now beginning to devote her attention to the plant.
In good years an acre will yield about 16 maunds of jute. A maund is equal to 82 2-7 Ibs. avoir. A good crop, therefore, from two millions of acres would mean an outturn of 1,175,.500 tons, or, in other words and in round figures, 5,260,000 bales jute, and 1,300,000 bales cuttings of 400 lbs each. The European consumpt is about 2,400,000 bales, and the Indian mills, taking an average consumpt of 10 cwts per loom per week, will use on full time about 1,300,000 bales. This leaves an ample stock for internal consumpt throughout the provinces.
It is astonishing to find the great variety of uses to which the natives put this fibre. Leaving out of account the still considerable but constantly diminishing manufacture of native gunny cloth for bags, jute is very largely used in the making of ropes and twines. All the sails and ropes of the countless fleets of native craft on the rivers are made from jute, and every hut which is built or repaired has its bamboo frame-work lashed together with twine from the same material.
The tender leaves of the jute plant are an article of native diet, and make good curry. After the fibre is stripped off, the hollow stems of the plant are in some districts made into shelter houses for the cultivation of the pan leaf, which is universally chewed along with the betel nut.
The cultivation of jute is, in the main, carried on by the small ryots (peasant farmers). The farms, as a rule, are not large. Many of them are not larger than 5 or 6 biggahs. Three biggahs make an acre. Twenty or thirty biggahs would be a good sized farm. The rents paid for the land vary in the different districts, but from Rs.2 to Rs.3 per biggah is a fair average. This is equal to from 6s 6d to 10s an acre. These plots are held from the zemindar or landowner, and are mostly granted on perpetual leases, although tenants-at-will are numerous enough in some of the districts. The position of the jute ryot has greatly improved during the past 10 years. He is getting to be a very independent sort of fellow now. Formerly he used to be, body and soul, at the mercy of the mahajun or money-lender, who advanced him money on his crop at the rate of 33⅓ per cent, per annum. Thanks to the high prices which have ruled of late years, he has got out of the clutches of that gentleman to a large extent. Jute can be produced at from Rs. 2-4 to Rs. 2-8 per maund, and the carriage to Calcutta will average say another 8 annas. Rs. 3 per maund is equivalent to £4 8s 6d per ton. Anything like decent stuff has been selling at double that money in Calcutta lately. The practice of making large forward ales before the crop is ready has much to do with high prices. The native merchants in the country districts seem to have means of getting information quicker than the telegraph, and, being in no hurry to realise, they feed the Calcutta market in a very judicious fashion, and stimulate the competition amongst the buyers, who must fulfill their contracts and meet their freight engagements. And so the cultivators fill their pockets.
The social condition of the ryot in Bengal remains practically unchanged through many centuries. His methods of farming are the same as those of his far back ancestors. He uses the same kind of little wooden plough as they did. The harrow may be described as a bamboo ladder. The plough has only one handle, so the ploughman has one of his hands free to steer or stimulate the couple of bullocks, whose necks are literally under the yoke. This he does by means of their tails. A bullock costs about Rs. 30, or 32s 6d sterling. A cow costs more or less than that sum, according to her milk-giving condition. A tailless bullock is of no use. Goats abound everywhere, and are very cheap. Poultry are largely bred, but the birds cannot; be compared to our barndoor gentry at home for size. In the Calcutta market four young hens can be got for a rupee The cultivators of the soil and their families are a patient, hard working race, and make the most of their circumstances. The ryot only plants as much jute as he can manipulate when the time of harvesting and retting arrives. From 1 to 2 acres is a common area under jute in a small farm, the rest being under food stuffs, of which paddy (rice) forms the bulk. Jute is not particular as to soil, but gives the best results in quantity and quality on rich clay. The low-lying chur lands, which have been formed by accretions of mud beside the river banks, yield a coarser fibre. This jute has often to be cut down before it is fully matured by reason of an early rise in the river, causing an overflow on the low land. Droughts and floods are the great enemies of the cultivator. Alternate rain and sunshine is what the jute plant wants until it is well set up. When the crop is ready the stems are cut down as near to the ground as possible, and tied up in convenient bundles for handling. These bundles are carried to the tanks, or to the ditches which skirt the fields, and there submerged for a time until the signs show that the fibre can easily be stripped. The ryot then takes his stand in the water, and, seizing as many stems as he can manage at a time, loosens a little of the fibre at the ends, and with a deftness and skill only obtained by practice strips the stems from end to end. The jute is then hung up to dry, after which it is made up into bundles or drums of about one maund each for the market. The harvest time is from the end of June to the end of September. A good supply of water for retting has a very important bearing on the quality of the crop, and especially on its colour. The ryot very seldom sells the whole of his jute unless tempted by a very high price, and the portion he keeps in reserve is by no means the inferior quality. During the past number of years the jute farmer has been doing well, and in the working of the land he is ably assisted by his wife and family.
Family life amongst the peasantry in Bengal will bear comparison with that of any other country. They are hard-working, frugal, cleanly in their habits, affectionate, one to another, and very religious according to their light. They are fond of their children, and the old father and mother are held in great veneration. Indeed, it is the grandmother who rules India. Her word is law to the household, and her children and grandchildren accept it as such. Poor relations are cared for as a matter of coarse. Parochial Boards and poor's rates have not yet been invented. The regeneration of India will take place through her women. Your Zenana Missions have begun at the right end. The Indian women greatly enjoy the visits of their European sisters. But I have been digressing, and must come back to jute.