As dusk descends on Madna village, Bulan Bibi walks slowly down the road towards what can at best be described as a shack — a platform with a tarpaulin cover. Under it sits a teenage boy with a pile of beedis (hand-rolled cigarettes) stacked symmetrically in a bamboo basket. Ms. Bulan reaches the counter, opens a small basket she had covered with the edge of her cotton saree, and hands over bundles of beedis to the teenager.
He counts them and says, “603”, matter-of-factly making an entry in a small diary. She asks when the next instalment of money will be credited. The boy makes a reference to the munshi (contractor) who owns the ‘shop’ and will make the payment: ₹178 for 1,000 beedis. That’s one of the lowest wages in the country for beedi rolling. As costs for the beedi industry escalate, tobacco gets more and more tainted, and work gets irregular, the women don’t have another skill to fall back on.
There’s nothing to draw people to Madna, in West Bengal’s Sadikpur gram panchayat, Murshidabad district. The village resembles an urban slum, its unpainted brick-and-cement structures almost getting in each others’ way. Located only a few kilometres from Chandermore on National Highway 12, its greenery is fast disappearing to half-built habitations. The region along the Ganga has been prone to erosion for several years now, leaving no land for agriculture.
The men have migrated to other States to work as construction labourers. It’s hard to find a man between 15 and 50 years on the streets. Only those who have local businesses or shops have remained. As have the women, staying rooted with the family in their home village, much like the steady leg of a pair of compasses.
Beedi rolling has been the primary source of income for women over several decades now, in almost every village in Murshidabad, even parts of Malda, across the river.
Ms. Bulan stops to chat with Aslenur Bibi at her newly built house. “She can roll beedis very fast, 1,000 a day,” Ms. Bulan says of her friend. Even when Ms. Aslenur talks about her husband, a migrant worker in Gujarat, her nimble fingers do not stop, putting tobacco on a kendu leaf, rolling it, then using red and black thread to bind it.
Saraswati Roy, from the same village, jokes that women who roll more beedis get better marriage proposals in the region. “But, I cannot roll like her (Aslenur). At best I can roll 500 sticks a day,” Ms. Roy, who has a 26-year-old daughter, says. This means she earns less than ₹100 a day.
The official wage declared by the West Bengal government is much higher. A notification issued by the State Labour Department in September 2020, which still stands, stipulates that for every 1,000 beedis rolled in Malda and Murshidabad, ₹267.44 be paid.
“Sometimes men do send us money, but sometimes they cannot. Beedi rolling is the only source of income. It is our money, and we can spend it as we like,” says Nasreen, also there to chat. The women also complain that they get work only two or three days a week.
Sonamoni Das, a social worker, points out that only a small fraction of women rolling beedis get PF (Provident Fund) or other benefits. While trade union members and social activists say that 20% of the women are enlisted for PF, beedi industry insiders put the figure at 40%.
Pathanpara is a dense habitation in Lalgola town at the heart of Murshidabad district, where the women organised a protest against low wages almost two years ago. “We stopped rolling beedis for a few days; the wages were raised by ₹20. But now we are finding it difficult to go on, even with increased wages,” says Sufia Bibi.
On the terrace of small houses of Pathanpara, women gather in the afternoon after completing the daily chores. They bring along small baskets and prepare to roll beedis, first snipping kendu leaves in a rectangular shape. The eldest, Suketa Khatoon, explains how the elaborate network of supply of raw materials for beedis operates.
Every day the munshi provides ‘masala tobacco’ along with kendu leaves to them. For every 1,000 beedis, the women get about 270 grams of tobacco. Once the raw material is used up, women hand the beedis over to the munshi.
“Occasionally we fall short of tobacco and kendu leaves, which we have to buy on our own. The wages should be a minimum of ₹200 for 1,000 beedis,” Ms. Suketa says. They recall that in the years of the pandemic when their husbands, fathers, and brothers all returned home it was beedi-making that kept them afloat.
In this locality, some women work for branded companies. Yet, they get no benefits. “We do not even get loans when we want,” Mousumi Khatoon says. With the help of social workers from SEWA, an organisation that works with informal beedi workers in the State, Ms. Mousumi took sewing lessons, but complains that there wasn’t enough tailoring work and she is back to rolling tobacco.
“When we ask the State Labour Department officials about the low wages, they say ₹178 for 1,000 beedis is a result of an agreement between local mahajans (moneylenders) and labour unions,” says Moumita Chakraborty, State coordinator of SEWA. The social activist says along with the migration of men from the region, what makes women drivers of the economy of the beedi industry is that they have softer hands and can roll dried kendu leaves with only small amounts of tobacco.
A beedi baron speaks
Inside large factories that package crores of beedis every day though, there is not a single woman. The regions of Suti and Dhuliyan, also in the district, are dotted with several multi-storied warehouses and factories of beedi companies. One of them is Nur Biri.
From early in the morning, large bamboo baskets full of rolled beedis arrive on motorbikes or cycle vans, at the large compound of the company in Dhuliyan. Dozens of men sit in long rows sorting the beedis and labelling and packaging them in clockwork precision. They are employees and have higher, more stable incomes than the women beedi workers.
At about 10.30 a.m., Khalilur Rahaman, MP from Jangipur, who owns Nur Biri, arrives to oversee the operations. He picks up a bundle of beedis. “On one side of the label there is a photograph of my father, and on the other side, the small child is me when I was four years old,” he says, without irony.
Representing the Jangipur constituency, succeeding former President late Pranab Mukherjee and his son Abhijeet Mukherjee, Mr. Rahaman comes from a family of beedi barons and says the earliest family records of the factory show that it existed in 1942.
With an elaborate network of about 14,000 workers and beedi rollers, Nur Biri produces 1.25 crore sticks daily. The MP complains that since the imposition of GST on tobacco products in 2017 the demand for beedis has been steadily declining. “The decline of production has been about 15% to 20%. This is the reason women rolling beedis are not getting work all seven days of the week.”
He has a zoomed-out view on the industry. “There are 15 lakh people who are directly dependent on beedi rolling for their survival. If the industry slowly dies then these people will be pushed to the brink,” Mr. Rahaman says. According to the MP, beedis are natural products, where no artificial inputs are used. Also it’s a cottage industry, so, “Beedis should not be taxed at par with other tobacco products at 28%.”
Tobacco is produced and transported from Gujarat, Karnataka and Maharashtra while kendu leaves come from Odisha, Chhattisgarh, and Madhya Pradesh.
Every morning and evening trucks full of tobacco and kendu leaves arrive at these factories or go directly to local traders from where the raw material is supplied to women in Malda and Murshidabad. These trucks also carry the finished product to different parts of the country.
Rajkumar Jain, secretary of the Aurangabad Bidi Manufacturers Association, says that production of beedis from the region is about 30 crore sticks per day. “There is a drop in demand of about 15%. We have made several representations to the Ministry of Labour that the industry needs to be saved or else alternative employment opportunities need to be created for the people.”
Mr. Jain says there are 629 beedi factories in the State and the lives of two million workers are directly linked to the industry in Malda and Murshidabad alone. There is also an 18% GST on kendu leaves and 28% on tobacco.
The e-Shram portal of the Central government puts the number of unorganised workers under the tobacco industry at 21.13 lakh as on December 31, 2022, of which 12.44 lakh are from West Bengal. Murshidabad alone accounts for over 5.23 lakh of the workers.
Along with a reduction in demand, the increase in price is also affecting the poor, the main consumer of beedis. For instance, the price of one bundle of Nur Biri containing 13 sticks is ₹10; soon one beedi stick will cost ₹1.
Insiders complain that the law has hit the beedi industry hard. The Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act, 2003, or COTPA, 2003, aims at regulation of tobacco trade due to its adverse impact on health.
In 2020, tobacco-related cancers accounted for 27% of India’s cancer burden, as per the Indian Council of Medical Research. It’s not only beedi smokers, but also those in contact with tobacco several hours a day who are at risk.
The World Health Organization (WHO) calls beedi rolling “an occupational health hazard”. A 2022 WHO publication titled ‘An evidence-informed policy brief on occupational health hazards among bidi workers’ calls for classifying beedi rolling as a hazardous process under existing regulations and laws. It sought alternative sources of livelihood and safe working conditions for women engaged in the trade in the light of health hazards such as respiratory, musculoskeletal, gastrointestinal, neurological, skin, and cardiovascular disorders in addition to diseases of the eye, ear, nose and throat.
The women are conscious about the health hazards and long before COVID masking became a protocol, they would use their dupattas and sarees to cover their nose and mouth. The long exposure to tobacco makes them dizzy and causes regular headaches, they say. There’s also back and neck pain due to long hours of work. However, they do not acknowledge the direct link between beedi rolling and major ailments like tuberculosis.
Under the Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976, a number of health clinics, including the Central Bidi Hospital at Dhuliyan, were set up. However, its repeal in 2019 hastened the decline of these establishments.
Mohammad Azad, a trade union leader who used to roll beedis before and after school as a child, says that an RTI query filed by his union revealed that ₹2,578 crore was collected as GST from the industry in 2019-20. Of this, nothing has been set aside for worker welfare.
“Almost every spare hand that does not have work in Murshidabad, both Hindus and Muslims, rolls beedis,” he says on the religious background of the workers. The skill, at risk of decline and final disappearance, is the most “secular occupation” and not many realise that craft and adept fingers have no religion.