Tendu leaf binding centres No Place For Pregnant Women
The Odisha government earns crores from the tendu leaf trade. But the poor women employed in the binding centres work 12 hours a day for less than minimum wages. Pregnant women, who work these long hours without adequate drinking water or sanitation facilities and no healthcare, are the worst-affected.
In July 2010, when 35-year-old tendu leaf binder Sita Tandi lost her premature baby, her fellow binders at the tendu leaf binding centre in Bhangrajpur, Bargarh district, Odisha, were not a bit surprised. Many of them had been through the same experience. Her family was despondent when the baby died. And, they were forced to admit Sita in hospital as she was not doing too well. A lot of money was spent on her operation. Sita’s husband worries about not being able to repay the Rs 5,000 he borrowed from the landlord in the village.
This year, Sita is back at the tendu leaf binding centre. She is five months pregnant again.
“If we do not work here how will we maintain the family? We have still to pay the money we owe the landlord for expenses at the time of my operation. We are poor and landless people. MGNREGS (Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme) work is hardly available in our area. So we were left with no option but to migrate here with our children,” she says.
“It’s really difficult for me to sit for hours on the floor selecting, grading and binding tendu leaves during my pregnancy. I have pain in my lower abdomen. I am doing this just for a square meal for my family.”
Twenty-two-year-old Allhadini also binds tendu leaves at the Khairamal tendu leaf binding centre. She is three months pregnant. This is her second child. “I have been coming to this binding centre since my childhood. Earlier, I used to come here with my parents; now I come with my husband, one-and-a-half-year-old son and my mother-in-law. It’s really painful sitting for hours on end in this posture. I feel weak when I work for long hours,” she explains.
“A few days ago, fellow binder Hemadri Suna, who was pregnant, was admitted to the public health centre at Paikmal. Her condition deteriorated and she was shifted to the Bargarh district hospital which is about 120 km from here. Today we heard that she had a premature delivery and that both mother and child are not well. No doctor is available for us if any serious health problems arise. We have to go to the sub-division hospital, which is about 15 km from here, for treatment and no government transport is available,” Allhadini says worriedly.
When I visited around 30 tendu leaf binding centres in Padampur sub-division, I met 18 pregnant women, all of whom were working long hours sitting on the floor in odd postures. Most of them reported the same problems.
Fifty-year-old Kalabati Lohar of Keshumal binding centre has been binding tendu leaves for 20 years with her husband. “Every year, we spend seven to eight months in this phadi,or binding centre. While working here I had two miscarriages. Now I have three children. My son and daughter-in-law also work here. My daughter-in-law is pregnant. We have half-an-acre of land, but with no irrigation facilities and an erratic monsoon we hardly get anything from the land. The other employment option, the MGNREGS, is rare in our area. So my whole family has come here to earn something. I know it is difficult for my daughter-in-law to work in this condition. But we don’t have an option. We can’t leave her alone in the house.”
“We are used to staying in this clumsy shed. We were promised a decent living, with healthcare facilities. But nothing is being done. We do not even have safe drinking water; the only working tubewell is in the village which is about 1 km from the binding centre. There are no sanitation facilities for the women. Since we came here, in mid-May, the local doctor has visited us just once. This area is malaria-prone. During the rainy season we suffer from fever and diarrhoea. No care is being taken by the forest department. After all we are poor. Why should the government care for us?”
Simantini, who is also pregnant, says: “We are living in horrible conditions. There is no safe drinking water here, no toilet, and no sanitation facilities. Pregnant women are extremely vulnerable. We have to wait until dark to attend the call of nature.”
The tendu tree (Diospyros melanoxylon) is found in abundance in the forests of western and central Odisha. Its leaves are used to make beedis (indigenous cigarettes), and is one of the most important non-timber forest produce in this region, not just for the tribal communities dependent on it to eke a living but for the state government as well.
The total turnover of the tendu leaf trade is in the region of Rs 200 crore annually in Odisha, and according to the forest authorities tendu leaf plucking provides employment to millions of families across the state during the lean season, especially in the drought stricken districts of Kalahandi, Bolangir and Koraput.
Tendu leaf plucking emerges as one of the most important sources of livelihood for the poor. About 4.5 lakh quintals of tendu leaves are produced annually in Odisha, generating, on an average, more than 1 crore man days of employment for some of India’s poorest communities.
Under the state tendu leaf department, there are roughly 7,000 binding centres employing around 20,000 workers. Half of them are women.
In March or April, the forest range office in every tendu leaf division provides a lumpsum advance (locally called pesky) of Rs 65,000 per party (each party consists of 10 khuntis) to assigned ‘mates’ (labour contractors) for workers to be brought in to process and bind the leaves.
Subsequently, the ‘mates’ identify families in need of money and distribute the money received from the forest department as an advance for their labour in the binding operations. Come mid-May, when the collection of tendu leaves is over, the labourers and their families are taken by the ‘mate’ to the collection centres. These are mostly thatched huts or tarpaulin sheds locally known as madua.
The process begins with the tendu leaves being left to dry for 10-15 days. Leaves suitable for bidi-rolling are then selected and bound into packs called ‘beeda’. The workers’ first job consists of watering the tendu leaf bundles, turning them periodically, and letting them dry a bit. Finally, the leaves are selected and graded. The labourers work in khuntis (a khunti consists of a man and a woman). For each leaf bundle dried and bound, the labourer gets Rs 23.50; one family can make four to six bundles a day. There is no limit on the hours of work, as payment is made on a piece-rate basis. To make four to six bundles, workers would have to put in 10-12 hours of work. The combined daily income of a family is between Rs 117 and Rs 141. Per person that’s around Rs 70-80—less than the daily wage.
According to P K Mishra, DFO, KL division, Khariar, the state forest department provides Re 1-1.50 per bag towards medical expenses to the binding staff. One bag normally consists of 12 bundles. One khunti can bind a maximum of six bundles a day. That’s a maximum of 180 bundles a month—only 15 bags. That means two people would receive Rs 15-22.50 as medical expenses a month. Per head, it’s a meagre Rs 7.50-11.50 a month.
Range Officer Rabindra Gochayat admits that pregnant women who live and work at the binding centre face tremendous difficulties. “I have been associated with these workers for a decade. Though we do not maintain any records, at least six or seven cases of abortion, miscarriage, and premature delivery are reported every year in my area. These women feel shy to report to us, but their husbands tell us about the problems they face.”
Pradeep Purohit, secretary of the Tendu Leaf Karmachari Sangh, Padampur division, says: “Every year we get complaints of miscarriage, premature delivery, stillborn babies and caesarean births. We keep asking the forest department to provide a healthcare facility at least, especially for women and children who are the most vulnerable in the processing unit. Unfortunately, our demands and their plight remain unheard and unseen. Despite being aware of this, the forest department does not keep any record of such cases. To my knowledge, three deaths have occurred due to pregnancy-related complications in the last two years.”
“These labourers are skilled in the grading and binding of tendu leaves. Especially women are very skilled in grading leaves. Nobody can do grading as quickly or as well as these women can. But unfortunately, nobody cares about their wellbeing,” Purohit adds.
Senior gynaecologist Dr Narayan Thanapati says: “A layman can understand that a pregnant woman needs protein-rich food and sufficient rest for good health. There are many dos and don’ts during pregnancy. These women neither get good food nor do they have sufficient rest at the binding centre. They are forced to live in very unhygienic conditions without proper sanitation. This makes them prone to various infections. Though leaf binding per se is not hazardous for them, sitting on the floor for long hours in an odd posture and binding leaves is definitely risky. The foetus’ movement inside the womb could get affected, leading to complications like abortion, miscarriage, premature delivery, even death. I have been practising in these areas for 15 years. Most of the delivery cases referred to me from the binding centres involve complicated pregnancies. I think the government should pay special attention to pregnant women working in tendu leaf processing units.”
When asked about the problems women face at the binding centre, Principal Conservator of Forests K Jude Sekhar said: “We are concerned about the problem of the tendu leaf binders. Every year we organise a health camp for them. We are not forcing pregnant woman to work in this situation. Because they come here with their families they perhaps feel the need to help their male counterparts.”
“If they have any health problem they can go to the nearby public health centre and get treated there. We also help them when they require our help,” he added.
The government earns crores of rupees every year from the tendu leaf trade. Unfortunately these skilled workers—the backbone of this flourishing trade—live in penury. (Infochange)
By Sarada Lahangir