Congress and Left Front are both counting on the support and votes of the local bidi labourers in the twin assembly constituencies at Suti and Shamsherganj of Murshidabad to return a favourable mandate in the assembly polls.
The issues and problems pertaining to the local bidi workforce, who make up an estimated 75% of total population across the twin constituencies, would feature among the poll planks of either of two political affiliations during the ongoing campaign phase. Hence, both the local leaderships of the Left Front and the Congress are literally pulling out all stops to woo the bidi labourers across the two assembly seats.
In addition to the pressing woes of the ailing bidi workforce across the twin seats, Shamsherganj has been reeling under the effect of the Padma river, washing away vast swathes of land in the area. However, there is a sense that the ruling Left-Front government over the last three decades has done precious little to address either of the two issues dogging the twin seats for long.
Mousumi Begum, Congress poll candidate from the newly carved Shamsherganj constituency, said, "Every year, the central government allots funds for the welfare of the bidi labourers, but due to the negligence of the state government, none of it trickles down to the labourers and are sent back to the Capital unused."
"The social welfare department normally provides a bidi labourer an identity card after five years of experience in the industry. The card accords him a host of facilities like free medical treatment, home loans and educational loans for his children among others. However in Shamsherganj, the Left cadres have forcibly held on to the cards of the local bidi workforce, thereby depriving them of the government benefits. In some areas they have said that cards would only be returned if the Left candidate wins the seat. Many of the labourers are now down with TB, but cannot avail free treatment from the ESI hospital."
However, Toab Ali, Left candidate from the seat, dismissed the Congress charge saying, "The state government issued identity cards to the bidi labourers till 2005. But Pranab Mukherjee, the union finance minister and Jangipur MP, took away the state's right of issuance of cards thereafter. The central government has been issuing the cards since. It is only after we campaigned that the central government has been issuing cards every year to 200 odd labourers through the social welfare department. However, the same is not enough."
"A bidi labourer earns around R55 for binding every 1000 bidis and the central government deducts Rs16.80 of the same on account of the welfare fund. Hence, the labourers are deprived of free treatment and a host of other facilities," said Ali.