By Aatreyee Dhar:
Bidi cigarette, which is the poor people’s tobacco, has been a major source of income for about 4 billion Indians rolling beedis for a living. Cheap labour combined with cheap tobacco has been doing the rounds in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal, home to India’s largest bidi-rolling industry.
A 13-year-old, Khatoon, had to drop out of school to sustain her family’s meagre income by rolling beedis after placing tobacco flakes inside a tendu leaf. The leaves are then tied down with a thread after being tucked by an iron rod.
Khatoon has been suffering from acute back pain after having to sit for long hours without breaks for even meals or drinking water. The industry that began in the 1990s has not changed much with children being employed from home.
Sagira Ansari, Another 11-year-old, cracks her knuckles to rub charcoal between her palms before the bidi making process. Sitting eight hours a day, she has been rolling bidis since she was seven along with her best friends.
She confesses that she has been exposed to diseases associated with working in an open-air bidi factory like cold, cough and fever frequently. There are many girls like Sagira and Khatoon who toil through the hazardous tobacco dust every day to churn out the popular leafy cigar and meet the country’s endless demands for cheap tobacco.
The daughters begin learning the process from their mothers from the age of five, becoming an expert before attaining puberty. Even if the children are admitted to schools, there is no guarantee of them attaining basic education as they drop out of school to support their family.
There’s only one hospital in the area that gives free treatment to workers having bidi cards. whereas the girls have to face the consequences of having been exposed to toxic tobacco dust affecting their lungs and eyes causing severe chest pains and headaches.
Painting a gloomy picture of the gross violation of child labour laws, a survey conducted by two working NGOs in 2012 revealed that around 75.22% of the people working as bidi labourers in Dhuliyan of West Bengal’s Murshidabad district are children.
Earning around ₹75 per 1,500 bidis rolled as opposed to the minimum wage of ₹162 as mentioned in the Minimum Wages Act of Bengal, most of the breadwinners are children especially minor girls below 14 years with the social mindset in the area opposed to women or older girls working outside their homes.
There is widespread exploitation of women and girls by middlemen or contractors who advocate the 1986 Child Labour law that left a loophole which allows children to assist their family members in their work.
The bidi industry perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty by encouraging cheap labour through engagement of children, avoiding the overhead expenditure of employing adult labourers guided by trade unions.
Women and children sometimes lack the freedom to fight for their rights in the absence of proper education.
In the practical sense, child labour laws are complicated in the country with the bidi industry’s influence on the government. Even if child labour is strictly banned across the country, it’s not going to help as it will gravely impact the overall economy of a town like Dhuliyan whose income is solely dependent on the bidi-working sector.
The RTE act and its implementation should guarantee education at all costs to such children which can help them get out of this life as bidi-workers.
We also need collective responsibility from trade unions, government departments, and other NGOs to make employers accountable for perpetuating child labour.
The next time you pass by a group of labourers taking a swig of their beedi, remember the story of the little hands who make it, and the need for laws to protect their future.