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BW Businessworld

The Puja Economy

Durga Puja, arguably the largest street festival in the world, seems insulated from the slowdown. If anything, it is expected to boost certain sectors of the economy

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Anjana Dutta, a Delhi based school teacher and an avid dancer, is eagerly awaiting Durga Puja to go on a shopping binge. “Since Durga Puja is an integral part of my culture and tradition, I love dressing up in the saree during the festival. My favourites are Kantha and Dhakai Jamdani sarees,” she says. For someone like Kolkata-born Amartya Chatterjee who works with an MNC in Delhi, the puja season provides the perfect alibi to binge on the most sumptuous delicacies.

Amartya and Anjana resonate the fervour and zeal with which millions of Bengalis celebrate Durga Puja every year across the country and more specifically in West Bengal, unleashing a carnival-like atmosphere that extends to well over 10 days and spells a bonanza for all kinds of businesses, traders and artisans including idol and pandal makers and sundry professionals, among others. From the earlier five-day affair that kicked-off on Maha Sashti (6th day) and ended on Maha Dashami (10th day), Durga Puja festivities now begin on Mahalaya (Day 0) continue till Maha Dwadashi (12th day) or the immersions.

Even as the Puja festival is eagerly awaited, a key question on everyone’s mind is: Will the festive fervour cut through the current economic downturn, job crisis and liquidity crunch and boost demand in certain sectors of the economy like food and beverages, apparel, and arts and entertainment, etc?  

Abhishek Addy, Manager, Supply Chain, Walmart puts it rather succinctly: “To be fair, the spending doesn’t happen all on one day, but is usually spread out over the 90 days preceding the festival. This includes pandal makers, artisans, lighting and decoration folks, as also the food and beverage makers. But if Durga Puja were an industry, it would certainly be one of the most dominant in our state (West Bengal), after agriculture.” 

The Puja economy

Although estimating the size of the Durga Puja economy seems like a debatable exercise, a 2013 Assocham report titled “West Bengal cashing in on Durga Puja celebrations” pegged it at Rs 25,000 crore and growing at about 35 per cent CAGR. It projected its size to be Rs 40,000 crore by 2015. If that figure were to be extrapolated to 2018, the size would be Rs 1.12 lakh crore and Rs 1.5 lakh crore in 2019. As West Bengal’s current GDP is Rs 10.20 trillion, as per the estimate, the Puja economy contributes a little over 10 per cent to the state’s GDP.

Atanu Biswas, Professor (HAG), Indian Statistical Institute (ISI) maintains, “Puja is of utmost importance to a Bengali, and its economy is also huge. Its share in the GDP is possibly much more than what most of the major festivals of the world have on the corresponding societies. Understandably, it’s not quite easy to estimate the economy of Durga Puja due to the ‘multi-dimensional character’ and ‘year-long activities’ for Puja,” adding, “According to a government estimate, there were more than 28,000 barowari (organized by para/mohalla/club) marquees in the state last year, in addition to many family pujas. And, nearly 40 per cent of the marquees (pandals) of West Bengal is in Kolkata.”

Interestingly, the 2013 Assocham report stated that despite a falling rupee, rising inflation and slowing economy, large industries were targeting high profits margins during Durga Puja in West Bengal. However, many think that due to poor consumer sentiments and economic slowdown this time around, the involvement of corporates and brands will be restricted unless the world market picks up and stability is achieved.

Sumanto Chattopadhyay, Chairman & Chief Creative Officer, 82.5 Communications (The Ogilvy Group India) says: “The Kolkata Durga Puja is, without a doubt, the largest street festival in the world. With the entire state—the people, the business houses and the government—giving their all, its scale is enormous. Soon after one year’s puja ends, the preparation starts for the following year. The result of this year-long effort is a mind-boggling mix of festivity, artistry, culture, entertainment, shopping, food and drink rarely seen anywhere in the world.”

Recently, the British Council in Kolkata and the Department of Tourism, Government of West Bengal joined hands to launch a collaborative study for mapping the economic worth of creative industries around the festivals of West Bengal, with a focus on livelihoods generated through creative industries around festivals and the economic value of these livelihoods. “Certainly, it seems that the estimation of the Puja economy as a whole is beyond the purview of the project,” says ISI’s Biswas. In the past, too, attempts have been made to get an idea of the scale of the Puja economy. For instance, The Economic and Political Weekly in a 1954 report titled “The Economics of the Durga Puja” had noted that the Durga Puja shopping is one of the best indicators of people’s incomes. For most people working in West Bengal, the annual bonus, (or the Puja bonus as it is known there), comes just before the actual Puja.

With the boom in e-commerce and shopping festivals just before the festive season, Puja shopping has only grown bigger and bigger. While Puja shopping and Puja periodicals continue to play an intrinsic role in the lives of Bengalis, their characteristics have changed significantly.  

“Now, with the technological and cultural evolution, in addition to the Puja special publications, there is a growing market for digital forms of magazines among the Bengalis all over the globe. One needs to look at these issues of economics as well,” says Biswas.

Brands’ Puja connect 
Historically, multinational brands across industry verticals have piggybacked on the Puja sentiment through a mix of above-the-line and on-ground activities and this, interestingly, isn’t an industry-specific phenomenon.

Says Chattopadhyay, who is also an ad guru: “Any brand that wants to create a bond with Bengali consumers cannot ignore Durga Puja. They know that linking with this festival is the way to win over consumers in the state. New entrants into this regional market will consider festival-related advertising and marketing a key strategic tool. Older players will look to maintain or renew their ties.”

A classic example would be that of Shoppers Stop, which has rolled out a campaign titled “Jaago Tumi Jaago” (which roughly translates to Hey, Wake Up) in order to leverage the frenzy around Puja. The campaign highlights the virtues of an empowered woman effortlessly.

Uma Talreja, Chief Marketing & Chief Customer Officer, Shoppers Stop says, “Just like Durga, she (an empowered woman) is the undefeatable goddess. The campaign urges women all over to rise and gracefully take on the persona to break stereotypes.”

Likewise, Pantaloons has crafted an exclusive Puja fashion collection to bring the latest trends to its consumers. The company has also launched a new campaign that is rooted in the Puja culture of pandal performances but with a contemporary lens.

“We are confident of our product and the marketing campaign and expect to see business as usual especially from our growing Pantaloons loyalty base. We believe that our merchandise and campaign will strike the right chord with our consumers and the most tangible benefit that we derive as a business is the business growth that we achieve over the Puja period. Last year, Pantaloons saw more than 30 per cent growth in West Bengal during Puja,” says Ryan Fernandes, Head of Marketing & Ecommerce, Pantaloons.

Prateek Kumar, MD & CEO, NeoNiche Integrated Solutions is of the view that buying patterns have changed but buying volumes haven’t. “People buy apparel, jewellery and other products that offer quick gratification on the pretext that it is the time of the year to indulge yourselves. We do not believe that this sentiment has dampened. In fact, we expect people to spend more this time around with a lot of innovative brand campaigns at play.”

Corporate sponsorships, awards 
Durga Puja has transformed a lot in the last decade. From just a traditional Puja, it has now become a professionally managed event with a mix of tradition, food, and entertainment. Industry observers reckon that more than 10,000 marquees come up in West Bengal every year and nearly 40 per cent of which are in Kolkata, while the number of pandals in Mumbai and the NCR are around 150 and 400, respectively. Over the last few years, multinational giants like Coke, Pepsi, Vivo, etc., have been shelling out big bucks to gain consumers’ mindshare. Of late, Puja pandals have become more focused on lighting and decoration and the committee organisers spend lakhs of rupees with the aim of making their pandals the winner.

Joy Das, General Manager, Media Planning & Buying, Mirum India, “It is a perfect opportunity for brands to try to catch the eyeballs of the consumers. Currently, Brands associate themselves with every aspect of puja, from the decoration, entertainment to the famous ‘Bhog’. In India, the festive season begins around this time and culminates with Diwali. This entire duration is a bonanza for the brands and consumers and they use every medium to attract eyeballs — from print, hoarding, activation to digital. While the hoarding and activation reach only to the people in the vicinity, they amplify their activities and reach out to a wider audience through the digital medium.”

With the advent of corporate sponsorships, puja organizers are no longer just dependent on contributions from local residents and are now spending big bucks on getting the biggest and most glamorous pandals and idols possible. Depending on the location and size, the expenses and overheads for pandals range from a few hundred thousand to tens of millions of rupees, with corporate funding and outdoor advertising accounting for about 90 per cent of the cost.

“In today’s ecosystem, corporate funding and outdoor advertising account for about 90 per cent or more of the funding required for the gigantic arrangements of Durga Puja. There has been a paradigm shift from pujas organised by taking chanda (subscriptions from common people). With about 2-3 lakh footfalls per day in a puja pandal, it’s obvious that companies — big and small — see this as a golden opportunity to get more eyeballs. Many companies design their ad spend in a way that a reasonable amount is spent during the Puja season to get maximum returns,” says Biswas.

Taking the meaning of Durga Puja to a whole new level this year is Santosh Mitra Square Puja Committee from North Calcutta, which has decided to get a 12-feet-tall Durga idol covered entirely in gold plates. In the same pandal last year, Durga’s idol was wrapped in a Rs 6.5-crore saree made from 22 kg of 22-carat gold.

Sajal Ghosh, General Secretary, Santosh Mitra Puja Committee says, “We are raising the bar this year as we are planning to create a unique 50-kg gold idol”. Although the cost of the idol is Rs 17 crore, we have tied up with a jewellery brand which will be supplying it to us on a barter basis.”

This year, the state government, too, is doling out Rs 25,000 to each of the Puja organisers, compared to Rs 10,000 it gave last year.  

Making the carnival a tourism hotspot
The West Bengal government has in recent years started a carnival of sorts for the immersion process, modelling it after the Rio Carnival in Brazil. This has led to an increase in international tourism, thereby boosting the economy.

Agra, Delhi, Rajasthan, Goa and Kerala are hotspots of international tourism in India. Durga Puja could help add Kolkata to the circuit. This could give foreign travellers one more good reason to visit India, helping boost India’s tourism economy,” says Chattopadhyay.

Biswas echoes the thought. “If Durga Puja as a brand can be marketed more effectively outside Bengal, even overseas, it might do wonders for the economy,” he says.