For the young women in Murshidabad district of West Bengal, rolling
is an “art”, which, if perfected, can land a good match.
“The more bidis you can roll in a day, the better are your chances for a good match. One needn’t be pretty or educated to find a way into a man’s heart in most villages,” said Alok Mukhopadhyay, chief executive at Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI), at the release of Caught in a Death Trap — a report on the condition of 1,000 home-based bidi workers in Gujarat and West Bengal.
While most of these poor households — 69 per cent in Murshidabad and 82.20 per cent in Anand in Gujarat are below poverty line families — depend on bidi manufacturing, 95 per cent of the respondents wanted a change of occupation.
The study revealed that the industry was blatantly flouting labour laws. Seventy-six per cent of the workers are paid a paltry Rs 33 for rolling 1,000 bidis, which can take upto 12 hours or more. “This is much below the minimum wage fixed by the government to support a family of more than five,” said Karabi M.G. Majumdar, anthropologist-researcher at VHAI.
While research laws do not allow minors to be interviewed, researchers claim they saw many children at work in Anand as well as Murshidabad.
“Most of these children lead a life of drudgery, day after day, little realizing that they are exposing themselves to hazardous substances. They work before and after school hours and about 12 hours on weekends,” said Mukhopadhay.
“This is probably one of those few instances where children do not look forward to holidays — they work almost 50 per cent more than on regular days.”
Long working hours and paltry compensation have left more than 75 per cent of the respondents with multiple diseases — malnutrition, anaemia, tuberculosis, lung infections, skin and spinal problem are the most prevalent.
“There is a complete lack of transparency… Most of the bidi workers do not know who they work for as their only point of contact are middlemen,” said Bhavna Mukhopadhyay, director and researcher (health promotion), VHAI.