Today's Paper

Beedi workers of Jangipur hold key

Indrani Dutta

Villagers are affected by poverty, malnutrition, high infant-mortality rates and chronic ailments

“The vote season has come,” exclaims the unlettered Rokeya Bibi giving a knowing smile as she shows us the way to a cluster of huts in a village in the interiors of Jangipur. We reach a courtyard where about five women sit around rolling beedis. Some try to rock asleep their babies even as their nimble fingers roll the tobacco leaf into a beedi. They know time is money and their pay is in direct proportion to the number of beedis they roll.

Rokeya Bibi and her neighbours are part of the nearly six lakh workers (of who four lakh are voters) engaged in the industry in the border town of Jangipur. They will play a major role in deciding the outcome of the vote in this Lok Sabha constituency from where External Affairs Minister Pranab Mukherjee is contesting on a Congress ticket.

He is taking on Mriganka Bhattacharyya of the CPI(M). Citing his advanced years, Mr. Mukherjee has said that this might be his last Lok Sabha elections.

However, he need not strike a sentimental chord to woo his voters. “You could come inside this village only because ‘Pranabbabu’ built the road,” says Malati Bibi, her voting intentions clear.

Although one of the nerve centres of the country’s organised and unorganised beedi industry, Jangipur is one of the most backward parliamentary constituencies in West Bengal, where a surfaced road, even a kilometre away from the village, is a boon.

The villagers are affected by poverty, malnutrition, high infant-mortality, and chronic ailments such as tuberculosis. And it has been this way for as long as the Rokeya Bibis and Malati Bibis can remember.

Supplementing their husbands’ meagre earnings by some Rs. 1,500 a month, they get a daily wage of Rs. 46 for rolling 1000 beedis in packs of 150 in this rather exploitative trade. “We spend all our waking-hours on this job for which we were earlier paid only Rs. 35 or Rs. 37. We will vote for whoever can improve our plight.”

In a recent interview, Mr. Mukherjee said that he is grateful to the people of Jangipur who have given him a piece of land to stand upon. “I used to be called a rootless wanderer since I had never won a Lok Sabha election till 2004.”

However although Mr. Bhattacharyya’s name is not heard much around the constituency, the party’s organisational strength will play a big role when the votes are cast.

Food park

The beedi workers say that they are grateful for a local provident fund office and for the many schools being set up so that their children need not take to their trade. They see hope in a food park proposed by one of the biggest beedi factory owners. They are also happy that the neighbourhood hospitals have been upgraded and beds added, so that they no longer need to rely on quacks to save their lives.

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