Rs 60 for rolling 1000 beedis, and a horde of health problems for tribal women of Madhya Pradesh

Long hours spent on the fiddly task of rolling out beedis, leaves the huge workforce of women beedi workers in Madhya Pradesh, most of them adivasis, with a pitiful income, no social security and poor health.

Sachin Tulsa Tripathi
| Updated: Last updated on July 28th, 2021,

Satna, Madhya Pradesh

Chandrakali Chaudhry is 55-year-old and for 30 years of that, she has been rolling beedis in her village in Madhya Pradesh.

“In a day, even after putting in eight to ten hours of work, I struggle to make enough beedis,” Chandrakali, a daily wage beedi maker from Kaima Unmulan village in Satna district, about 460 kms away from the state capital Bhopal, told Gaon Connection.

Age has slowed her down, she said. While earlier she could easily make 1,000 beedis a day, now she barely rolls 500. Chandrakali gets paid Rs 60 for a bundle of 1,000 perfectly rolled beedis. If some turn out to be less than perfect, money is cut from her wages.

“The money I am paid for the amount of labour I put in is pitiful. But I have to continue doing it to run my house. And, I know no other work,” Chandrakali added. Headaches from the smell of the tobacco, shoulder and neck pain from hunching over her work, and eye strain from the fiddly work of rolling beedis, has taken their toll on her.

Approximately 250 families live Chandrakali’s village of Kaima Unmulan, many of them adivasis, and most of them depend on daily wages and the beedi-making for their livelihood.

Also Read: Low wages, high health costs: Poor, marginalised women beedi rolling workers face acute exploitation

While earlier Chandrakali could easily make 1,000 beedis a day, now she barely rolls 500.

Madhya Pradesh’s beedi-rolling industry

Collecting leaves from the tendu tree (Diospyros melanoxylon), and rolling them into beedis is a huge industry in Madhya Pradesh, especially in tribal dominated villages near the forests. Adivasi inhabitants of villages in Satna, Rewa and Panna districts in the state depend on beedi making for a livelihood.

In the dry and rocky terrain of the Bundelkhand region that falls in both Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, there are hundreds of villages where people living near the jungles collect and dry the leaves from the tendu tree.

According to the Environment Information System (ENVIS) Centre of Madhya Pradesh’s State of Environment (ministry of environment and forests), nearly 25 per cent of the country’s requirement of tendu leaf is furnished by Madhya Pradesh. Annually, 2.5 million manak bora of tendu leaves are supplied by the state. One manak bora consists of 1,000 bundles of tendu leaves; each bundle has 50 to 100 leaves in it.

Also Read: Privatising forests: In its zeal to improve degraded forests, is the Madhya Pradesh government barking up the wrong tree?

The daily wage earners rolling the beedis get no more than Rs 60 per 1,000 beedis.

Exploitation of beedi workers…

A report titled, Knowledge Gap in Existing Research on India’s Women Beedi Rollers & Alternative Livelihood Options: A Systematic Review for Promoting Evidence-Informed Policy and Prioritizing Future Research, by AF Development Care, a New Delhi-based research consulting group, there are about seven million beedi workers in the country, of which five million (over 71 per cent) are women. There are other reports that claim “women comprise around 90 per cent of total employment in beedi manufacture”.

The beedi-making work is done through contract and the daily wage earners rolling the beedis get no more than Rs 60 per 1,000 beedis. Often, the contractor rejects beedis on account of them not meeting the required standards, the money is cut from the wages of the workers.

“If the beedis are improperly rolled due to which the tobacco is spilling out, or the leaf is torn, or there is less tobacco content in them, they are rejected. The companies want only the best beedis,” Chandrika Prasad Kori, a labour contractor in Satna, explained to Gaon Connection. The 48-year-old also rolls beedis himself.

“In Satna district alone there are 110,000 beedi workers. But the regular and registered workers are very few,” Bashik Ahmed, district president, Beedi Mazdoor Union, Satna, told Gaon Connection. There are eight active beedi companies in the district employing no more than 50-60 labourers, he added. These regular and direct employees of the beedi companies also get the same Rs 60 per 1,000 beedis.

According to beedi contractor Kandhi Lal Bunkar, from Satna, Rs 6 from the wage is deducted to go into their Employers Provident Fund and the labour welfare department to be given to the workers on retirement or if they resign.  It goes without saying that the rest of the labourers who work under a contractor, have neither any welfare or social security scheme to support them.

Collecting leaves from the tendu tree, and rolling them into beedis is a huge industry in MP.

Revenue for the state

To help forest dwellers of the state become economically independent, the state’s minor forest produce co-operative was set up in 1984. In order to cut out the role of middlemen in the trade of forest produce, primary forest produce societies were set up. There are 1,072 such primary societies working in the state under 60 district level Forest Produce Co-operative Societies.

According to details from a report by the forest department, in 2020-21, (till December 2020), 1.59 million manak bora of tendu leaves were collected. Of this, 1.37 million manak boras were sold earning a revenue of 560.55 crore rupees. The adivasi forest dwellers who collect the tendu leaves are paid Rs 2,500 for each manak bora.

On an average, the annual earning from tendu leaves has been between Rs 600 crore and Rs 800 crore. In 2018-19, the forest dwellers were paid Rs 2,000 per manak bora of tendu leaves.

This year, the target is to collect 65,000 manak boras of tendu leaves, Rajesh Rai, officer, forest department, Satna, told Gaon Connection. Of these, 63,449 are already collected, he said.

“The collection of tendu leaves is done through forty two forest committees in the district, and three hundred smaller forums,” Rai said.

96% of the people working in the beedi-making sector do so from home.

Also Read: Unregistered and unorganised, daily wage workers slip through the cracks during the pandemic

In 1966, the Beedi and Cigar Workers (conditions of employment) Act was passed to regulate the beedi workers sector and make provisions for their welfare. Ten years after that, in 1976, The Beedi Workers Welfare Fund came about, to provide schemes to help in the education, health, group insurance, maternity, housing assistance, etc.

However, at the grassroot level, not much has changed as millions of beedi workers still continue to work in the unorganised sector, with no identity, security or welfare available to them. According to the AF report, 96 per cent of the people working in the beedi-making sector do so from home, while a meagre four per cent works at the factories.

Overworked and underpaid

Kusum Kali Saket from Godha village in Rewa district of Madhya Pradesh is her family’s breadwinner. Her husband is physically challenged and unable to go to work.

“After working for a whole day, I can only manage to make about five hundred beedis. But invariably nearly two hundred are discarded because they are not perfect and I get paid only for three hundred beedis,” the 50-year-old told Gaon Connection.

Saket gets paid Rs 60 for every thousand beedis she makes. And even less, after the money for the discarded beedis is cut from her wages.

“It is definitely an underpaid job,” acknowledged the labour contractor, Kori. “But people are still making it,” he shrugged.

Also Read: Seeds of change: Using seeds of kusum, karanj and imli, tribal women in Jharkhand turn agri-entrepreneurs

Low wages, high health toll 

“I rolled beedis before I got married and I am still doing it after marriage. There is no difference in my life,” Somvati Chaudhary of village Hadkhar in Satna, told GaonConnection.

“While the tendu leaves and tobacco are provided free by the contractor, the money for the string required to tie up the beedi to hold it together, is cut from our wages,” she added. Otherwise, they will have to go and buy the string from the market themselves. One hank of string costs Rs 10 and if it is of good quality it can be used for 2,000-4,000 beedis, Somvati said.

“The smell of tobacco gives me a headache. Sometimes my eyes water,” Vidya Kushwaha, a 36-year-old beedi worker from Masnaha village told Gaon Connection.

“But we have no land to cultivate and while my husband works at someone else’s farm, I roll beedis at home. We had to do this to bring up our children,” Subharan Kori, a 75-year-old beedi maker from Shahpur, told Gaon Connection.

“Even though my eyesight is not what it used to be, I continue to do this work,” she added.”

Read the story in Hindi.