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COVID, economic slowdown dim lights on Durga Puja in Bengal


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KOLKATA: The COVID-19 pandemic and economic slowdown have dimmed the lights on West Bengal's biggest festival, Durga Puja, for the second consecutive year as organisers slashed their budgets and scaled down celebrations due to shrunken sponsorship.

Not just small-budget pujas, even big-ticket Durga Puja committees in Kolkata have curtailed their spending by nearly 30-40 per cent, mainly compromising on marquee decoration, organisers said.

Some major Durga Puja organisers, however, felt that although the present situation is far from normal, it is better than last year as many sponsors are willing to spend, albeit lesser than previous years.

College Square Durga Puja Committee spokesperson Bikash Majumder told PTI on Thursday that its budget has been slashed by at least 40 per cent as compared to the 2019 spending of Rs 50 lakh as there are fewer corporate sponsors and also because of a COVID-induced overall downturn in the market.

"The illumination on the water body next to our marquee will have lesser glitz and frills while the pandal will be open on all sides, enabling the revellers to see the idols from a distance," he said, adding that the Durga idol height has been shortened to around 12-14 feet.

"But we can't stop the festivities altogether as the livelihood of many people depends on our puja," he said.

Echoing similar sentiments, a member of Suruchi Sangha, another popular puja that has attracted lakhs of visitors for years, also decided to cut down its budget by around 30-40 per cent.

"We have curtailed our budget by around 30-40 per cent due to lack of sponsors. We have also decided to spend around 50 per cent of the funds collected by our puja committee towards providing financial assistance to around 10,000 children and their families in our area. The remaining amount will be spent on idol and marquee," puja committee spokesperson Swarup Biswas said.

He said the celebrations will be minimalistic due to the paucity of funds.

Medium and big pujas in the state spend between Rs 12 lakh and Rs 30 crore on theme-based marquees packed with safety arrangements and basic necessities.

Mohammad Ali Park Durga Puja committee general secretary Surendra Kumar Sharma said that their budget has been slashed to around Rs 12-13 lakh from Rs 60 lakh in the pre-COVID times.

Organisers have also cut down on promotional activities due to shrunken budgets.

The Calcutta High Court has ordered that all Durga Puja pandals in the state be made no-entry zones for people, like last year, to prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Forum for Durgotsab president Kajal Sarkar said that sponsors who have expressed willingness to invest have curtailed the amounts.

"Donations, subscriptions and retail advertisements cover around 30 per cent of the expenses; while the rest is usually taken care of by corporate funding, which was negligible last year. Although the situation has improved this year, the sponsors have cut down the amount," he said.

However, corporate houses said they are excited to participate in Durga Puja this year as the COVID impact has reduced, and it has been long since the firms directly connected with consumers through physical advertising.

"Enquiries were higher this year but advertisers finally did not proceed very aggressively due to the uncertainty over footfall at pandals. The advertising inventory, which comprises physical advertisements and sponsorships to puja committees, of all major firms in pre-COVID times was a total of Rs 200 crore."

"However, this year it has dipped to 50 per cent (Rs 100 crore), and last year, it was 25-30 per cent," Amit Mitra, a senior official of a multinational advertising firm, told PTI.

Emami Agrotech said that overall spending could have been higher if the corporate firms and media planners had clarity over the scale of the celebrations.

"We were apprehensive about the situation, so had to delay our planning. Our spending could have been more if we had clarity on the situation. We are focussing more on digital content, for which we have allocated around 60-70 per cent of our budget," Emami Agrotech president (marketing) Debabsish Bhattacharya said.

(THE NEW INDIAN EXPRESS)