Bidi cigarette, which is the poor people’s tobacco has been a major source of income for about 4 billion Indians rolling beedis for a living.
Cheap labour combined with cheap tobacco has been doing the rounds in the Murshidabad district of West Bengal, India’s largest bidi-rolling industry.
The Story Of Every Young Child Labourer in Murshidabad
A 13-year girl child by the name Khatoon had to drop out of school to sustain her family’s meagre income by rolling beedis after placing tobacco flakes inside a tendu leaf. The leaves are then tied down with a thread after being tucked by an iron rod.
Khatoon has been suffering from acute back pain after having to sit for long break-less hours that includes skipping meals and water. The industry that began in the 1990s has not changed much with children being employed from home.
Another 11-year-old Sagira Ansari cracks her knuckles to rub charcoal between the palms before the bidi making process. Sitting eight hours a day, she has been rolling bidis since she was seven along with her best friends.
She confesses that she has been exposed to the diseases of an open-air bidi factory developing cold, cough and fever frequently. There are many girls like Sagira and Khatoon toiling through the hazardous tobacco dust to churn out the popular leafy cigar in order to meet the country’s endless demands for cheap tobacco.
The daughters learn the process from their mothers from the age of five, becoming a master before attaining puberty. Even if the children are admitted to the school, there is no guarantee that they attain the basic necessity of education as they have to drop out before completing their courses in order to support their family.
There is the only hospital in the area giving free treatment to workers having bidi cards whereas the girls have to face the consequences of having been exposed to toxic tobacco dust affecting their lungs, eyes causing severe chest pains and headaches.
The Cover of Child Labour Laws
Painting a gloomy picture of the gross violation of child labour laws, a survey conducted by two working NGOs in 2012 revealed that around 75.22 percent of the people working as bidi labourers in Dhuliyan of West Bengal’s Murshidabad district are children.
Earning around Rs 75 per 1,500 bidis rolled as opposed to the minimum wage of Rs 162 as mentioned in the Minimum Wages Act of Bengal, most of the breadwinners are children especially minor girls below 14 years with the social mindset in the area opposed to women or girls working outside their homes.
There is widespread exploitation of women and girls by middlemen or contractors who advocate the 1986 Child labour law that left a loophole steering clear of children assisting their families with work from home.
The bidi industry perpetuates the vicious cycle of poverty by encouraging cheap labour through engagement of children, avoiding the overhead expenditure of employing adult labourers guided by trade unions.
Women and children lack the freedom to fight for their rights in the absence of proper education.
The Need Of The Hour
In the practical sense, child labour laws are complicated in the country with the bidi industry’s influence on the government.
Even if child labour is strictly banned across the country, it is not going to be helpful at any cost as it is going to gravely impact the overall economy of a town like Dhuliyan whose income is solely dependent on the bidi-working sector.
The RTE act and its implementation should guarantee education at all costs to such children which can help them get out of this life as bidi-workers.
We also need collective responsibility from trade unions, government departments, and other NGOs to make the employers accountable for perpetuating child labour.
You should imagine the dark story involving little hands belying the flavourful swirls of bidi as you pass among a group of labourers to root for a cause that the law needs to protect through accommodating ways.
Image Credits: Google Images