In India’s beedi hub of Murshidabad, exclusive hospital for workers of the industry lacks doctors and facilities

Since the Beedi Welfare Act, 1976 was repealed in 2019, the hospital has been plagued by lack of funds, shortage of doctors and technicians, poor maintenance and repeated power cuts

December 17, 2022 11:39 pm | Updated 11:42 pm IST - DHULIYAN, WEST BENGAL

The Central Hospital for beedi workers at Dhuliyan in West Bengal.

The Central Hospital for beedi workers at Dhuliyan in West Bengal. | Photo Credit: Debasish Bhaduri

When a health worker was stitching up a wound on a patient at the Central hospital for beedi workers at Dhuliyan in Murshidabad district of West Bengal a few months ago, he had no inkling of what was in store. Power supply went off for load shedding and the generators could not be fired up.

Power cuts, a shortage of doctors and supporting staff, and a lack of funds and maintenance have been plaguing the country’s biggest hospital for beedi workers for several years. The hospital was inaugurated in 2000 by the former President Pranab Mukherjee, while he was the MP for Jangipur. Now, the hospital lies in a dilapidated condition.

Even on December 14, there was load shedding around 11.45 a.m. Hospital officials waited for the power to return, even as a few patients, mostly family members of beedi workers, waited helplessly in front of the outpatient department with small slips stamped with the seal of the Union Labour Ministry.

“We do not have the resources to fire the generators,” a hospital official said, pointing out that the funds and future of the hospital have been in limbo since the Beedi Welfare Act, 1976 was repealed in 2019.

The 65-bed hospital, spread across 9.3 hectares of land on National Highway 12, has a sanctioned strength of 10 doctors, including four specialists, but at present, there is only one permanent doctor. “The physical infrastructure of the hospital, such as pathology, X-ray and USG machines, are gathering dust as there are hardly any technicians. There has been no annual electricity maintenance for the past two years and there is no Internet,” another hospital official said.

The hospital’s staff quarters lie in neglect, with officials saying there is no proper drinking water supply system in place.

Beedi workers, particularly women who roll beedis, face numerous health problems. The World Health Organization calls beedi-rolling “an occupational health hazard”, pointing out that “the exposure to tobacco, nicotine, dust and other particles absorbed through skin and nasopharyngeal route, endangers the health of beedi workers as well as their families.”

Hub of beedi rolling

Murshidabad is the hub of beedi rolling in India. According to the data on the Labour Ministry’s e-Shram portal, there are 21.11 lakh unorganised workers in the tobacco (that is, beedi) industry in the country. Of them, 12.43 lakh are in West Bengal, half of whom (5.22 lakh) in the Murshidabad district. This district alone accounts for about 25% of all beedi workers in the country.

Outside the high walls of the hospital is the Tarapur colony, a locality where there are hardly any men in the age group of 15 to 50, as they have all migrated for work. Almost all the women in the colony roll beedis at the rate of ₹175 for 1,000 pieces.

Tarifa Khatun, 26, suffers from tuberculosis. Though she lives in the Tarapur colony, less than 100 metres from the hospital, she is seeking treatment several kilometres away, due to lack of infrastructure at the Central hospital.

The hospital was set up with the mandate to provide free health services to workers and family members of beedi workers. Despite the neglect over the past few years, there are still a few patients who throng the hospital, hoping to get free treatment and medicine.

Nibha Das, 30, and Tulsi Das, 56, are among those who seek treatment at the hospital. While Ms. Nibha Das says she rolls 700-800 beedis a day, Ms. Tulsi Das has given up the work. Both complain of breathing troubles.

“Most of the women complain of dizziness which could be because of regular and continuous exposure to tobacco. The common ailments include COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and skin diseases,” a medical officer at the hospital said.

On December 10, a team headed by a Joint Secretary from the Labour Ministry visited the hospital to see whether the health facility can be brought under the Employees State Insurance Corporation (ESIC).

Taimur Hossain had come from Baishnabnagar in the adjoining district of Malda, crossing the Ganga to seek free medical aid at the hospital, but was left disappointed. “Earlier, there were so many doctors and a lot of people used to come for treatment. Now this hospital has turned into a graveyard,” said the elderly Mr. Hossain.

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