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Rolling out their breathe in 'beedis'

December 22, 2011 - Pakud

Women of Tantipada, a small hamlet located in the close proximity of Pakud Railway Station, remain undisturbed by the chaotic crowd of passengers and the ear deafening sound of the trains, as their numb hands are busy rolling, passing, tying and stuffing the tendu leaves with the hazardous zarda, or tobacco in Hindi, so that they are able to achieve the target of thousand beedis by the end of the day.

They work continuously for 10-16 hours, sitting in one position with the entire body involved in this gruelling process, inhaling huge amounts of tobacco dust and they do all this to just earn a meagre amount of Rs 55? A "pain in the chest" is indeed the rightful reaction.

Kiran Ravidas, a widow who lives in the weary cottage in Tantipada, narrates the tale of struggle of the entire lot of beedi workers. After working incessantly for 20 years, Kiran at the age of 30 is counting her last breathe with painful cough hammering her chest every time she respires. Kiran, unfortunately, has many companions around her.

90 percent of the dwellers of this Harijan settlement are involved in this hazardous occupation. This home based industry is the major source of livelihood for the poor and that is the reason why the precarious side of it is generally avoided by the beedi workers.

"We are the uneducated poor lot and this reason is enough for us to overlook the variety of diseases we are exposed to. Employment schemes and other development programmes never reach us. Only the rich and powerful have access to such funds," tells Sunita Ravidas, who has given up all hopes on life and corrupt government policies.

90-95 percent of total employment in beedi manufacture comprises of women. Most of them start rolling the beedis at the tender age of 5. While helping out their mothers in the task, the young naive hands become expertise in rolling beedis in a short span of 3 months. They start contributing to the house's daily income, which is barely sufficient for the survival of their family. With no or little education, they continue working day and night. Even the marriage brings no change to their lives.

In fact, now-a-days, marriage proposals have a condition bound to them - the guy will marry the girl only if she knows how to roll a beedi!

With high concerns over tobacco consumption across the globe, health organisations are missing out on the poor health of the beedi workers. Their lung condition is as bad as that of an active smoker as the process of rolling beedis releases large amounts of coarse particles and dust, leading to diseases like Tuberculosis, Asthma and other diseases of the lungs. They do not protect themselves with clothing, masks or gloves, and are exposed to tobacco dust through their skin and by inhaling the harmful particles. The consequences of ingesting tobacco also include adverse effect on reproductive health, an issue not yet picked up by the medical community.

However, tobacco is not the only ill factor responsible for taking them a step closer to death. Lack of nutritious food and a clean environment ruins their immunity further. They work in dark, ill-ventilated rooms and outside they have narrow lanes marked by refuse and sewage from brimming drains.

Life has always been ironical for the beedi rollers. These people work hard to live and it is this horrendous work only which has put them all on the path, which surely has a "dead" end ahead. Although beedi industry has grown into a major industry over the years, it still falls in the unorganised sector and this has created several other knots in the struggle of the beedi workers. The old women beedi rollers informed that they used to roll 1000 beedis for just Rs 1.50!

The middlemen or the commission-dars play an important role in the economic exploitation of the rollers. They provide them with poor quality tendu leaves and then discard beedis blaming the workers for the inferior quality. They do not hesitate to take away the beedis without paying them. Left with scarce raw material, rollers are forced to enter the vicious circle of debt with the beedi contractors. This allows contractors to gain financial control over them.

The inclusion of the Beedi workers in the schedules of the Minimum Wages Act 1948 makes them a part of more fortunate home-based workers as the act does not include most other home-based activities.

The Beedi Workers (Condition of Employment) Act 1966, and the Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act 1976, offers provisions for workers like health insurance, maternity benefits, provident fund, scholarships for children, and housing assistance. Despite the availability of such benefits the entire community of workers is sharing the same plight. Why they are unable to reach the ones in the need?

The Charkha Development Communication Network feels that the past and future of these beedi workers can be easily related to their present condition. They work more laboriously yet face the fear of sleeping empty stomach each night. Beedi workers of Tantipada realise the swiftness of life happening at Pakud Railway Station, but are unable to take their lives to a specific destination and hence continue tying and rolling beedi after beedi. By Aloka


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