With bidi factories closed amid Covid-19 lockdown, 15 lakh labourers in Bengal district face crisis
Till two weeks ago, Shyara Bibi and her daughter together earned Rs 152 a day by rolling a thousand bidis at their home in Imamnagar area of West Bengal’s Murshidabad district.
On Sunday morning, the homemaker said she was not sure how to provide two square meal to her family.
Ever since the government announced lockdown to contain the Covid-19 pandemic, more than 15 lakh people linked directly or indirectly to the district’s bidi industry—considered the biggest in the state—are now dependent on food provided by the state and non-government organisations.
“To help the dairy industry, the state has permitted sweet shops to stay open for four hours. Is the administration not aware of our plight?” Mohammad Jamaluddin, a wage labourer, asked.
“It is impossible to survive on paltry savings and limited ration. The government must allow bidi production to save people from starvation,” he said.
In certain pockets of Murshidabad, entire families depend on bidi making, people from the industry said. There are more than 100 factories in the district’s Jangipur sub-division alone. Bidis from Murshidabad are sold in many states.
“More than eight lakh people are directly associated with the production in Shamserganj and Suti police station areas. There are families that earn up to Rs 500 a day by rolling bidis. These people have not made a penny since the lockdown began,” Emani Biswas, a bidi merchant from the Suti area, said.
A factory owner, who did not wish to be identified, said the problem will not be solved even if the government allows production locally.
“Bidis are sent to other states on trains. Until train services resume it is impossible to sustain production,” he said.
Some factory owners have extended help to the poor workforce but most said they will not be able to pay any wage under the present circumstances.
Jakir Hossain, Trinamool Congress legislator from Jangipur and minister of state for labour, owns a bidi factory himself.
“I have taken up the responsibility to provide food for more than 20,000 people in my constituency. I know that lakhs of labourers are facing a crisis. Our government has taken some measures to solve their problem,” said Hossain.
“With no production and sales, it is virtually impossible to pay these people their daily wages. If the government orders some relaxation, I will surely ensure that the labourers adhere to social distancing guidelines,” he added.
Abul Hasnat Khan, the president of West Bengal State Bidi and Tobacco Labourers Federation, said more than 22 lakh labourers attached to the bidi industry across West Bengal are unemployed during the 21-day lockdown.
“We have demanded the release of their unpaid wages next week. We have also received allegations that in many places they are not getting free ration,” Khan said.