The practise of beedi rolling is widespread and detrimental for vulnerable communities across India
Five-year-old Aliya thinks it is some kind of a game she must soon master to be a winner. From the time she wakes up till she goes to bed, Aliya watches her mother and all girls and women in her neighbourhood consumed in a frantic race. They all make beedis – the traditional hand-rolled Indian cigarettes.
For each beedi, the roller painstakingly places tobacco inside a dried leaf sourced from a local ebony tree, tightly rolls and secures it with a thread, and then closes the tips using a sharp knife. For anything between 10 and 14 hours, regardless of how long it takes, Aliya’s mother and others must all roll at least a 1000 beedis to earn a paltry sum of less than two dollars paid by the middleman. The beedi manufacturers, however, make billions of dollars.
The cigarettes are taken to warehouses of large manufacturers, packaged and sold in the market for a much higher price. The beedis are so popular that they make for nearly half of India’s entire tobacco market. But, behind the country’s unorganised domestic tobacco sector, lie invisible millions who are trapped in modern day economic slavery.
In Aliya’s town of Kadiri in Andhra Pradesh alone, hundreds of families have relied on beedi rolling as their only means of survival for generations. The labyrinthine, congested lanes of Kadiri slums, are home to an assembly line of humans functioning like robots. Young girls and women alike can be seen rolling cigarettes in groups out in the open. Some sway, some rock back and forth appearing entranced, while others have developed odd muscular motions as they push their work speed to the edge of human limits. For most, if they do not roll enough beedis every day, there simply will be no food on the plate. “The pressure to keep up with the speed and meet the target is so intense that many skip their meals and even avoid drinking water so they do not need to go to the toilet,” says Shanu, a community volunteer.
Almost all beedi workers in Kadiri are female, like the other beedi manufacturing pockets in India, and a large of number of them are young girls. For men, the home-based process is preferred over the option of sending the women outside for work. Aliya has already started her lessons early and is practising rolling beedis using cuttings of plain paper. “I want to roll beedis and give money to my mother,” she says.
A study released nearly three years ago estimated a scandalous number of more than 1.7 million children working in India’s beedi rolling industry. Children are knowingly engaged by manufacturers due to the belief that children’s nimble fingers are more adept at rolling cigarettes. Under the Indian law, beedi rolling is defined as hazardous work. But there is a loophole wherein children who assist their parents in their work do not come under the purview of the law.
“Formally, it is the women who take on the orders from the contractors. However behind the scenes, given the pressures these women face in terms of delivering on huge volumes, invariably children, mainly girls, get pulled into this to support their families in beedi rolling,” says Anita Kumar of Plan India.
As part of its global campaign, ‘Because I am Girl’, the child rights organisation has started a programme focused on girl child labour in Andhra Pradesh, including girls involved in beedi making. The project will collectively impact 1500 girls over three years. Children trapped in beedi work will need a rescue effort on a much larger scale. “We are aiming to create a model by working with communities and the local government structures ensuring that children are prevented from falling into this cycle of labour,” says Kumar.
From unhealthy living conditions to exploitative wages, slave-like working conditions and severe health consequences, the situation of beedi workers involves violation of fundamental rights and freedoms on many levels. The majority of girls are pulled out of education by the time they complete primary school to support their families’ income.
The youngest of four siblings, 11-year-old Salma dropped out of school last year when she completed grade four. “I wanted to continue going to school but we are very poor and have been struggling to pay the rent,” she says as she struggles to draw breath. Salma is suffering from jaundice and is so frail she can barely sit up straight. Yet, she is tasked with rolling up to 1500 beedis a day to support her family. Squatting on the floor and hunched up, she rolls cigarettes for over 12 hours every day and still earns just over two dollars. In addition to jaundice, Salma has also developed a ringworm infection on her wrist, quite common in the area due to poor hygiene and sanitation. She is in dire need of medical attention, but visiting a local hospital means a day off work due to long queues and a day’s wage in transport. Her parents cannot afford it either.
The health impact on beedi workers is visible on all age groups. Tuberculosis, asthma, body pain and postural problems related to hips and joints are most common. Continuous beedi rolling leads to absorption of high doses of nicotine directly through skin. The skin on the children’s fingertips begins to thin progressively, and by the time they reach their 40s they cannot roll cigarettes any more. Mahboobjaan, a mother of three girls, is in her mid-30s and is already losing sensation in her hands. ”My hands often swell up. I don’t know what I will do if I can’t roll beedi anymore,” she says.
The worst thing for beedi workers is the feeling that there is no protection, no welfare, and no state support. They vote, but have no power or effective representation. For all development indicators they remain at the bottom of the ladder all their lives. Among them, girls suffer the most. Throughout their life cycle, their basic rights are violated; as children, as child brides, as young mothers, they continue to fight for survival with extreme labour and economic slavery.
In the summer, as the temperatures reach 45 degree Celsius, streets in Kadiri are engulfed in a stifling cloud of tobacco dust. Infants play among heaps of tobacco leaves. Covered in a pool of sweat, young girls roll beedis with their eyes transfixed on their tobacco tray. Older women, who cannot roll any more, help with trimming the ebony leaves. The work continues till late into the night just to secure the next day’s meal and to keep a roof above their heads.
Next morning, and for most every single morning for rest of their lives, it is exactly the same story. The breathless race to 1000 starts with one all over again.
*The names of children in this article have been changed to protect identities.
Photo Credits: Davinder Kumar, Plan International
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