By Hitesh Sharma and Aniket Singh:
Beedis are the poor people’s alternative to smoking cigarettes – and rolling them provides employment to millions in rural India. While the job is a source of income for many, it also involves many health risks – risks that endanger the lives of those engaged in it. At times, the workers who engage in the activity aren’t even paid the prescribed wages by employers!
101 reporters’ Hitesh Sharma and Aniket Singh spent some time in Chhattisgarh to find more out the plight of beedi workers and to gain a perspective on how the industry functions.
About 4,000 people, mostly women, belonging to Mahaar caste (listed as a Scheduled Caste in the Constitution), work in the beedi industry in Durg, Rajnandgaon and Dhamtari districts in Chhattisgarh. They work in two-hour shifts, from 9 AM to 11 AM.
According to estimates, the beedi industry is worth ₹7,000 crore – ₹7,500 crore in India. The industry has the largest number of factories in Chhattisgarh, Bihar, West Bengal, Karnataka and Madhya Pradesh. As per Business Standard, “There are nearly 2,000 beedi manufacturing companies in India. Out of 8 million beedi people who work in these factories, nearly 70% are women who belong to tribal and rural areas.”
The women engaged in beedi-rolling are paid ₹88 for rolling a thousand beedis (8.8 paise a piece). While they are not particularly happy with the amount, they accept the arrangement with a pinch of salt – since they are assured a regular sum of money every week. Besides, the women say, they aren’t qualified to take up any other job.
Every district in Chhattisgarh has contractors, who provide the workers with raw materials to roll beedis. In Durg, the two contractors have two rooms where the women gather and roll beedis every day.
A beedi is made using tendu leaves. After soaking the leaves, the workers cut them into rectangular pieces. Tobacco dust is placed inside each beedi, post-cutting, and then bound with a thread. The size of the beedis varies according to the brand.
The workers are not provided gloves to protect their hands or masks to cover their mouth, which puts them at the risk of developing skin diseases, menstrual disorders, etc. While the government has not intervened in this, the workers too have never made such a demand.
36-year-old Anita Belge has been rolling beedis for six years. She says that her husband doesn’t earn much – and hence, she got into this profession. Belge also says that she’s started having difficulty in breathing and also has a constant itching in her palms. Though she knows that she’s earning a low wage, Belge says she can’t quit this job since she doesn’t have any other skill.
49-year-old Jijabai Shinde, a resident of Kosha Nagar in Bhilai, learnt how to roll beedis when she was a child. She says that her mother worked in the beedi industry – and as a child, she would accompany her, as extra hands meant more money. Shinde started working to earn money and support her family – but now, she does it to keep herself busy. She suffers from constant leg cramps, but dismisses it as a problem that comes with old age.
Hailing from Gadchiroli, 50-year-old Kalabai Bagde came to Harna Bandha village in Durg district of Chhattisgarh, after she got married. Despite constant itching in her hands (caused by beedi rolling), she continues to be engaged in the job as it a question of her livelihood. Like Bagde, there are several women across the country who roll beedi to support their family and their kids’ education with meagre incomes.