Under the tendu rolling pin: The exploited bidi workers of Madhya Pradesh

Legal loopholes allow small bidi companies to extract labour for a pittance


Sonal Matharu | July 29, 2011

Between themselves, Shanno (right) and her mother Najma earn only Rs 300 a week rolling over 8,000 bidis
Between themselves, Shanno (right) and her mother Najma earn only Rs 300 a week rolling over 8,000 bidis

Shanno and her mother Najma are busy rolling bidis. Najma cuts the ends of tendu leaves, dips them in water and passes them on to her daughter who rolls each leaf carefully and ties it with a thread. Then, Shanno fills zarda, or tobacco, in the hollow bidis and closes the ends with a scalpel-like device. It takes 1,000 such bidis to fetch just Rs 42. Minus the raw materials that they have to often partly supply themselves, they manage to roll 8,000 bidis in a week and earn around Rs 300 which scarcely suffices for a family of nine.

As per the state’s labour department, there are nearly four lakh such workers who keep the viciously exploitative bidi business rolling in Madhya Pradesh’s Sagar district where it generates a whopping 90 percent of revenues. The workers’ association says the minimum wages have not been revised since 1996, though the dearness allowance has increased partially over the years.

The minimum wage for a bidi roller is Rs 22.50 and the dearness allowance is Rs 26.77. An added bonus and money for leave makes a total of Rs 55.98, which a bidi roller is entitled to per 1,000 bidis. Out of Rs 55.98, Rs 5.12 is deducted for his provident fund. Hence, a bidi roller should be getting Rs 50.86 for 1,000 bidis which require an entire day’s work, but the employers release just Rs 45 or so to the middlemen who in turn pay only Rs 42 to the bidi rollers. In comparison, the daily wages of a farm labourer are Rs 119 in the state, and for an unskilled labourer Rs 169.

The assistant labour commissioner in Sagar, Sushila Singh Chandel, informs that committees were formed in 2004 and 2008 to recommend revision in wages of bidi rollers but nothing was incorporated from the recommendations of either of the committees.

Shanno’s family lives in a single-room brick house in the colony built on the orders of the then prime minister Indira Gandhi for bidi workers. Open drains flow in the mud lanes outside the houses in this colony which houses just about 150 families in the district which is considered to be the bidi hub of the state, with  and is home to as many as 40 percent of the total number of bidi rollers in Madhya Pradesh.

Bidi-rolling is hard, low-paid work that is also hazardous.

When Shanno was first diagnosed with lung tuberculosis 15 years ago, the doctors said seven years of rolling zarda, matchstick dust called kaadi, guntur and bhata (smoke causing substance) in dry tendu leaves had taken its toll. She was just 15 then, and over the past decade and a half she has been hospitalised thrice. Each time she had to be administered a bottle of blood, but she always returned to rolling bidis within a few days.

“It’s better than dying hungry,” says Najma, 60, as Shanno buries her wrinkled face, with sunken cheeks and thin hair, in work, “But nobody wants to marry her; she just does not put on weight.” The eldest among four daughters and three sons, Shanno continues to roll the white thread on the hollow bidis, which, if not rejected by the middlemen, will sell under the ‘Chand Murga’ brand.

Just across the street from Shanno’s house is a hospital built by the state’s labour department exclusively for bidi rollers. Shanno’s neighbour, Mohammad Mansur, affirms that this hospital is no good. When Mansur, 65, collapsed on the ground with shooting pain in his chest while playing with his granddaughter in November 2008, the hospital failed to provide him treatment or medicines. He had rolled bidis all his life and had the required bidi-rollers’ card, yet he had to shell out Rs 1.25 lakh for a bypass surgery, which was not even reimbursed by the hospital meant for patients like him.

The hospital has no specialists and refers patients like Mansur who need special care to other private hospitals. The reimbursement only happens in cases when the patients first take approval from the bidi hospital to seek treatment outside, informs the hospital medical officer Dr H A Soman. This process of referring patients may take up to two months which may prove fatal for those dealing with serious ailments.

The bidi owner he had worked for all his life did not help Mansur during his illness either. “My two sons work in a welding shop,” says Mansur, showing the stitch marks on his chest and legs, “They sold their house to raise money for my treatment and I received Rs 75,000 from the chief minister’s relief fund.”

Mansur, unlike Shanno, had to give up rolling bidis after his illness. “I cannot see properly and cannot sit for long in one posture,” he complains.
Mohammed Shahid, another resident of the colony, rues, “There is no other work but bidi-rolling here. The hospital was constructed right across the street but they did not give us any work. They got labour from Bihar.” Along with his wife, Nazrabano, 36, Shahid can barely earn Rs 500 a month. He laments that the housing board is now asking him and other families living in the basti for Rs 48,000 as dues for each house given to the bidi rollers in the colony. “How will we give them the money when we can’t even eat properly?” he asks.

Shahid is speaking for the entire community which is finding it increasingly difficult to make ends meet. Ajit Jain, president of the bidi workers’ association says that wages have not been revised for the past 15 years, even as general wages for workers across 39 industries in the state are revised every six months.

Only the factory owners refuse to face the facts. “The bidi rollers get the raw material at home. They need no electricity and no water to run this industry. The rollers can work at their own leisure and pleasure,” says MP Bidi Udyog Sangh chairperson and a factory-owner Meena Pimplapure.

Jain, however, explains that the bidi rollers are entirely home-based because the employers want to “evade all responsibilities”. A bidi manufacturing company owner does not have any bidi rollers directly under him. Each company has contractors or middlemen, called sattedars, who work for them and directly deal with the bidi rollers. The company’s raw material reaches the middleman’s godowns and the bidi rollers collect it from there, never knowing who their big boss is.

It bothers Pimplapure, though, that the bidi rollers’ children do not want to enter this industry and that they are getting labour elsewhere. But she need not worry. Chandel assures that there are not too many alternatives in this area. A soya bean processing unit called Sagar Soya, owned by Arvind Bhai Patel who also owns a bidi company, shut down two years ago because of shortage of management staff. Just one watchman guards the rusted machines at the vacant building which still looks new. “The bidi industry in Sagar will not let any other industry come up as the labour will easily shift to other work if they have an alternative,” says Chandel.

Under the Bidi and Cigar Workers Act 1966, any bidi factory producing less than 20 lakh bidis annually does not fall under this law. It is considered a very small industry, so it does not need any licence and does not need to open provident fund accounts for its workers or pay taxes to the government. These companies are not allowed to brand their bidis and sometimes they print fake stickers of other branded bidis to boost their sales.

The legal loophole is exploited with impunity by bidi tycoons who are mostly affiliated with political parties and often political leaders themselves.
The excise department does not maintain a record of such “small” factories or bother to check their claims of producing less than 20 lakh bidis. “If you are unregulated, you can produce as much as you want. The government is losing excise duty in crores. They are a loss of revenue to the state,” says Pimplapure. There are just 109 manufacturing units in Sagar which claim production of more than 20 lakh bidis annually. However, these units too do not employ bidi rollers. The 2,000 odd staff under their rolls just takes care of packaging.

“There is no upper limit to how many bidis the bidi rollers should make,” says a representative of BR & Company, the makers of 207 brand of bidi, which is apparently Meena Pimplapure’s company and its brand as well, “They only make 1,000 bidis a day. They can make 4,000 bidis if they want. They are not dedicated to making bidis and take other jobs. In Orissa, the bidi rollers are getting rice at Rs 2. They do not want to work. The money they get from bidi making is just like pocket money to them.”

Najma smarts at this claim. She has been rolling bidis since she was 16 years old and has often beaten her children to force them into this work. “Where do you think money for their books, school fee and food came from?” she asks, “All my children have been educated with bidi money.”

Photos: Sonal Matharu



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