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Beedi-rollers of Biharsharif ‘The Living Dead’

Updated: June 5, 2010 12:47 pm

Beedi workers are listed in the schedules of the Minimum Wages Act 1948, which do not list most other home-based activities. They are also entitled to health insurance, maternity benefits and housing assistance. Why then are beedi workers so desperately poor, with no access to these benefits?

Sita Mahato (56) has been working in the beedi industry since 1991. He has four children—two boys and two girls. Sunita Kumari (14), a student of Class VII, is crippled with polio and lives with him; the other girl has been married off. One of the boys studies in Class V. Sita’s second son migrated to Delhi where he makes a living as a tailor.

            Sita earns Rs 500-700 every month as a beedi-roller in Naya Tola, Badi Dargah, in Islam Nagar, on the outskirts of Biharsharif town in Bihar’s Biharsharif district. “The more beedis I roll, the more I earn. So I usually don’t stop until I am very tired. After all, it’s a question of feeding my family,” he says matter-of-factly. It also explains why he refuses to put away the motley tools of his trade—tobacco leaves, tobacco powder, rolls of string, and several odds and ends—to speak about his life.

            As Sita’s fingers nimbly tie and roll beedi after beedi, it’s evident that beedi-rolling is a gruelling process. Beedi-rollers like him put sookah (dried tobacco powder) inside a small tendu leaf, tightly roll the leaf, and secure it with a thread. It is estimated that an average beedi-roller rolls about 1,000 beedis a day. But at a huge cost: mental and physical abuse, penury and financial enslavement, and health problems.

            In Naya Tola, the local Naseeruddin SK Beedi Company supplies Sita and hundreds like him with tobacco leaves, sookha and rolls of string. And it pays them for their labour—usually Rs 47 for every 1,000 beedis rolled. “On a good day, when I work tirelessly for long hours, both I and my wife, who also joins me, manage to roll about 1,000-1,200 beedis.” That’s an earning of four paise per beedi, or anywhere between Rs 47-56 per day, provided the couple manage to roll that number of beedis every day, day after day. From this money, Sita has to feed and clothe his family, educate his children, meet health expenses, festival expenses, family function expenses, entertainment costs, travel costs, etc.

            A narrow lane marked by filth and sewage from overflowing drains leads to Naya Tola. It opens onto a ghetto-like compound where ramshackle houses, made largely of mud and plastic sheeting, huddle together, separated by narrow drains.

Most of these are one-room tenements, crammed to the beams with the family’s possessions. There is barely enough headroom; most residents lounge about outside their homes which is not surprising as it quickly gets hot and claustrophobic under the plastic-and-thatch roof.

            How does Sita manage to run his household on Rs 47 a day? “For seven to eight days every month we have nothing to eat. We go to sleep on empty stomachs. There’s just no choice…” he trails off.

            Even the meagre amount Sita earns is not consistent. There are days when he is too ill to do any work. “If it’s God’s will that we go hungry, so be it,” he says with a wry smile.

            Then there’s the notoriously unreliable and corrupt public distribution system (PDS). “We get 10 kg of wheat at Rs 5.50 per kg from the PDS shop every month. But that’s only if the shop has received supplies. Most times the quantity fluctuates and we have to manage with half. Rice is not supplied under the PDS; we have to buy it in the open market. I can’t remember when we last got sugar from the PDS shop. We buy it from the market at Rs 24 per kg,” Sita says.

            Because he has a roof over his head, Sita is actually one of the luckier ones. His brother-in-law, a mason, helped him build his tiny, one-room pucca (concrete) house. There are others, like 75-year-old Nasiruddin, who say they are happy if they earn even half of what Sita earns!

            “I used to be a rajmistri (mason) several years ago, when I was a lot younger,” says Nasiruddin, resignation writ large on his face. “At my age, I consider myself lucky if I can manage to roll 200-300 beedis a day. You ask how much I earn in a day… the company pays me Rs 45 for every 1,000 beedis I roll. So do the math,” he says. You don’t have to be a maths genius to calculate Nasiruddin’s earnings—a paltry Rs 13.50 per day for the 300 beedis he rolls.

            To add insult to injury, the commission-dar (middleman) sometimes supplies them less material, forcing Nasiruddin to buy it at a higher price in the open market.

            Noorjahan (70) says: “I have been rolling beedis since the time we were paid Rs 1.50 for 1,000 beedis! We never received any pension then, nor do we now. We take it one day at a time.”

            Not surprisingly, women make up a large proportion of workers in the beedi industry. Published literature estimates that women make up 76 per cent of total beedi employment. The All-India Beedi, Cigar, and Tobacco Workers Federation estimates that women comprise 90-95 per cent of total employment in beedi manufacture. They are primarily beedi-rollers and typically operate from their homes. Other members of the family actively assist in the process, especially children. In many cases, several women from the same household may engage in beedi-rolling to make ends meet.

            But the beedi industry is male-dominated, contributing to economic exploitation of women. Commission-dars are known to supply beedi-rollers with poor quality tendu leaves and then reject beedis that are ‘deemed poor’ in quality. They end up taking the beedis without paying for them! Entire households that rely heavily on beedi production for their survival are forced into debt with beedi contractors when raw material is scarce and has to be bought in the open market at higher prices. This leads to beedi company middlemen gaining financial control over the workers.

            Roshan Khatoon and her 50-year-old husband Mohammad Kallu have seen bad days, but nothing compared to what stares them in the face now. “My husband suffers from TB and the doctor has advised him to keep away from beedi-making, since it is eating away his lungs. But we know he can’t do that because then we will have no food. So either way we die—of disease or of starvation.” The couple has three children: one is already a beedi worker, another is training to be a mechanic, while the girl goes to a local school where they charge Rs 10 to teach Urdu.

            Women and children engaged in rolling beedis also have to contend with occupational health hazards. The process of rolling beedis releases large amounts of coarse particles and dust, resulting in respiratory problems among workers. Rollers do not wear protective clothing, gloves or masks,

and are exposed to tobacco dust through their skin and by inhaling the harmful particles. The Factory Advisory Services and Labour Institute in Mumbai, a unit of the Labour Ministry of India, found the incidence of bronchial asthma and tuberculosis to be higher among beedi workers than any other group in the general population. Other health problems include pain and cramps in the shoulders, neck, back, lower abdomen, anaemia, and eye problems.

            Eighty-eight-year-old Mohammad Safo says he has been rolling beedis since his childhood. Apart from him and his wife, there are four children to support. To make ends meet, the boys too roll beedis while the girl is sent to school only because the school for child labourers doles out Rs 100 to every child enrolled there. And that’s not all—in local parlance, the school is called khichdiya school because the children are given khichdi (rice porridge), as the midday meal.

            According to government estimates, 15-25 per cent of the industry’s employees are children. Under the Child Labour Protection Act 1986, allowing children under 14 to work in hazardous industries is illegal. Still, beedi production units regularly give work out to families, enabling them to employ children. Children as young as three assist in the family’s work. It is estimated that roughly 10 per cent of all female beedi workers, and 5 per cent of all male beedi workers, are children under 12 years of age.

            Mohammad Mumtaz (65) and his wife Shabra (35) have a similar story to tell. Mumtaz has tuberculosis; their six children—three sons and three daughters—help roll beedis to make ends meet. “This way, we earn Rs 300-400 a week, though my poor health means I have to spend Rs 25-30 every week on medicines whenever we have some money,” Mumtaz says.

            Under the law, employers of beedi workers are required to issue identity cards to their employees to enable them to receive welfare benefits. For families engaged in beedi production, however, the standard practice is to issue an ID card only to one member of the family, even if other family members also roll beedis.

            Beedi workers are actually among the more fortunate home-based workers. They get a mention in the schedules of the Minimum Wages Act 1948, for instance, which does not list most other home-based activities. There are also specific Acts, such as the Beedi Workers (Condition of Employment) Act 1966, and the Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act 1976, that offer schemes for workers. The provisions include health insurance, maternity benefits, scholarships for children, provident fund, and housing assistance. Then why do these desperately poor workers not have access to these benefits?

            Says Mohammad Naim, who’s spent almost 30 years as a beedi worker: “We barely have enough work for 18-20 days in a month. If we complain, we are thrown out of work by the commission-dar. Though there are 600-700 families here, and most of us are in poor health, the commission-dar reports back to the company and the government that all is well. Look at us—we are the living dead,” he concludes.


By Aditya Malaviya

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