Kolkata: Susheela, a 46-year-old native of Tamil Nadu’s Tirunelveli district rolls beedi for a living. She has been doing it, since the age of 14. At the age of 21, she got married and went to Mumbai with her husband. After a few years, when she was a mother of two, her husband was killed by looters. She returned with a 5-year-old son and a two-month-old daughter. Her in-laws took away her husband’s shop in Mumbai in exchange of a small piece of land in Tirunelveli. She was left with almost nothing. But with two small kids, she could not go out for work. Susheela resumed rolling beedis for a living. Now, her son is an engineer and her daughter has done BSc in Physics and wants to do B.Ed. Susheela even took a loan and built a house on her land too, with whatever she earned as a beedi roller.
The situation of Bhagyavati, another beedi roller was not good either, when she took up this profession. The 48-year-old mother of two, is a resident of Thach Nallur, a small village in Tamil Nadu, where the garbage from the entire district is dumped, thereby causing health issues to the kids of this village.
The contaminated air and water makes the place unhygienic for the people living there. This has caused many disabilities in people including two of Bhagyavati’s sons.
Her husband, an alcoholic, later diagnosed with HIV AIDS. He died, leaving behind two disabled children. Bhagyavati did not even get a widow pension either.
Rasul Beevi, 62, and her daughter Inul Jaria, 38, are from Nelapallya, Tirunelveli have a similar story.
Rasul is a 4th generation, and her daughter Inul is a 5th generation Beedi roller in her family.
The house runs on Rasul and her husband’s salary. They also supported their husbands during the pandemic with the money they had saved. She also single-handedly paid for the renovation of her home using the provident fund she was given from the beedi rolling company, that she worked for.
The daughter also pointed out that they love rolling beedis because of the liberty to do the job from their homes and at a time that they desire to work. She had applied for the educational scholarship for her kids which sadly stopped coming since the past two years, and she had to use the money she had saved from rolling beedis to complete her child’s education.
Chandralekha, who hails from Venkateshpuram has a unique story to share. She is a computer science engineer by profession and worked in a company in Tirunelveli as a Quality Controller. But because of Covid-19 lockdown, she had to quit the job and work full time as a beedi roller. Her parents and two of her siblings live together in their village and they are all engaged in rolling beedis. They collectively earn about 20,000 rupees every month. Chandralekha and her sisters are also preparing for examinations for Government jobs and have made it clear that she is going to continue rolling Beedi as a part-timer even after she finds another job. She and her siblings have been doing so, since they were 15 years old. She is the fourth generation of beedi rollers in her family.
These women are among the twenty individuals whose life has been studied by two researchers Vibha Vasuki and Dr Siva Prasad Rambhatla. The two were commissioned to conduct the study by the Mysore Beedi Mazdoor Association.
Twenty women are among crore beedi workers in India (including both organized and unorganized beedi sectors). Female workers comprise 90 to 95 percent of the Beedi industry. Beedi workers are also considered the most marginalized.
The researchers, however, mention that because of Covid-19 constraints, they could not meet two other women nor visit two districts—Tirunelveli and Mangalore.
And added that they have analysed National Sample Survey Office (NSSO), the Central Statistics Office (CSO), Government of India–the Annual Survey of Industries (ASI) and other available secondary data in their 90-page long study, titled—Lack of Alternate Employment for Women Beedi Rollers.
Highest GST paying industry – 28 per cent
After the introduction of GST (Goods and Services Tax), beedis attracted a 28 tax per cent, i.e. the highest GST rate, as beedi was categorised as a ‘demerit’ good.
Ironically, from the financial year (2017-18), it has made no allocation of funds for the beedi welfare fund after 2017-18, since GST implementation.
Contributes Rs 25 billion every year to GDP
Beedi is widely consumed throughout the country. 10.4 billion packets have been sold in 2017- 2018 alone, raising Rs. 156 billion and generating a revenue of Rs. 25 Billion to the Government. An adult smoker consumes about 93 beedis per month on average, spending Rs 284 per month for the year 2016-2017. This has increased by Rs. 191 since 2009-2010.13 States like Rajasthan, Assam, Madhya Pradesh and Tamil Nadu were some of the highest tax levying states in the country. Beedi generated about 12% of the total revenue generated by the tobacco industry in the year 1996.
Apart from direct beedi workers, the industry has also given employment to people who are indirectly involved in producing raw materials like tendu leaves (used to wrap beedis). About 6 million people in farming, 20 million people in farm labour and about 4 million in leaf plucking are employed by the industry as studied by TARI (Thought Arbitrage Research Institute).
COTPA (Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act) Amendment Bill 2020
The COTPA Amendment Bill 2020 has clauses that restrain the sale of beedis, and retailers engaged in beedi trade would need to get a license to do so. Restriction on branding, ban on the sale of loose beedis, printing of date of manufacture among others, owners and union leaders believe that it will reduce the sale of beedis and lead to the forced closure of the industry which will eventually make many people lose their job.
What respondents say about COTPA Amendment Bill 2020
When Inul was asked how they feel about the government’s decision of making changes to the beedi rolling industry, she said, “Why do you want to remove this plant and plant it somewhere else, instead of just watering the plants in the current place?” She also said if this industry closes, they won’t be able to start anew as her entire life she has been rolling beedis.
Rasul also said, “I haven’t faced any major problems in life because of the job security and money earned in beedi rolling”. And if the industry closes, my entire family will sit at home and have nothing to do
While Bhagyavati mentioned that, if the government is willing to train her for an alternative career, she will do it because she needs to take care of her family no matter what. The 48-year-old says she can try her best to adapt, but in the end, if she cannot, it is up to the almighty himself, to save her family.
What industry’s union leaders and owners have to say
“The Govt has only announced the amendments (COTPA Amendment Bill 2020) but hasn’t given a solution to all the problems that are going to rise after the industry starts deteriorating. Most women in the industry know only one skill to survive, and that is beedi work. They have been running their families with the salary earned by beedi work, they have been getting scholarships and other benefits by rolling beedis. Most beedi workers have educated their children who went on to be in domains like engineering, police and other departments. If the industry stops, how will the children of beedi workers afford an education? People might commit suicide because they have no other means to make ends meet,” said Bharati Bolar, Secretary, Mangalore Beedi Rollers Association.
Bimal Desai, owner of Desai Brothers Limited suggested that the government should make the changes in phases and not drastically. Let people adjust to the new changes. If the Beedi industry is banned, illegal sales of tobacco products will rise as people will smoke out of habit. People will lose their jobs and lots of families will have trouble functioning even on a normal basis. A huge part of Telangana is dependent on the beedi industry and around 700000 jobs will be lost.
“If the sales diminish, factories might end up closing and all the employees will end up losing their jobs. Since the women are not trained in any other skills, it will become difficult for them to make ends meet,” claimed Sudhir Shankar Sable of Sable Waghire and Company Limited.
Want higher wages and more work available than alternate professions
The two researchers claimed in the study, the government’s enervated attitude towards transitioning beedi workers to alternative livelihood is alarming. The government needs to take note of the urgency of the situation and implement programs on a larger scale. Until such transition is made possible, it must ensure beedi workers are given their wages and benefits under the now applicable laws.
The study reads, “Many studies have stated over and over that there exists a willingness among most women beedi workers to shift to alternate professions if given a chance. However, when we spoke to the participants, we noticed that they were mostly unwilling to shift to another profession, while they wanted to stay in the industry because of the convenience, they wanted to be paid higher wages and more work available to them.”
It further said, “We asked the participants if they had ever been trained by the Government or any other organization to develop skills and move to an alternate careers and they said they had never been offered training. While some of them showed a willingness to explore alternative sources of employment, most of them are set in their ways and want to stick to the trade that they have mastered over decades,”
“While there must be labour and wage reforms that need to be brought into the Beedi industry, shutting down the industry through COTPA Amendment Bill 2020 will be a disaster for millions with no other skills or employment,” the study added.