With no transport, lockdown exemption a damp squib in Bengal’s bidi hub
Bidi factories continued to remain shut in Bengal largely because of the transport gridlock.Updated: Apr 08, 2020, 23:51 IST
A day after chief minister Mamata Banerjee exempted the state’s bidi industry from lockdown saying millions out of job needed help, there was no sign of euphoria or activity on Wednesday in Murshidabad district, Bengal’s biggest bidi-making hub.
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 are dependent on their paltry savings and food provided by the state and non-government organisations.
In certain pockets of Murshidabad, entire families depend on bidi making. The workers are paid Rs 152 for rolling a thousand bidis. Raw materials are supplied by factory owners through ‘munshsis’ (agents). The munshsis also collect the bidis and distribute in markets. There are more than 100 factories in the district’s Jangipur sub-division alone.
On Wednesday, the munshsis were nowhere to be seen, said bidi makers who had seen a ray of hope in Banerjee’s announcement from the state secretariat.
Anwar Hussain, a bidi maker at Uttar Chachonda village said, “We thought things would change after the chief minister’s announcement. But today we came to know that production will not start. I don’t know how I will feed my family.”
Approximately 22 lakh people in West Bengal are directly associated with bidi making and 95% of the total production is sent to other states, said insiders in the industry.
Abul Hasnat Khan, president, West Bengal State Bidi and Tobacco Labourers Federation said, “The chief minister’s announcement will help less than 1% of the bidi makers. She did not consider the fact that all big factories send their products to other states. With no trains and interstate transport, the consignments cannot be sent.”
“Moreover, the big factories employ around 250 people. It is not possible to start production maintaining social distance,” Khan added.
Niponjeet Biswas, owner of Jeet Bidi Factory, said, “Most of the factory owners have adequate tobacco and leaves of kendu trees (in which the tobacco is rolled) in stock but we need regular supply of coal to toast the bidis. We need packaging labels, threads etc. Also, it is literally impossible to store the bidis for a long time. If we can’t sell what is the point in starting production?”
Trinamool Congress Lok Sabha member from Jangipur and a renowned bidi merchant, Khalilur Rahaman said, “If we cannot sell the bidi in other states it is impossible to start production. We are trying to find a solution to honour the initiative of our chief minister and help the poor labourers.”
Nazir Hossain, a munshi, said, “We were optimist about Banerjee’s announcement. After talking to several factory owners I have realised that production will not start till the Union government allows movement of trucks from West Bengal to other states.”
“Several bidi-laden trucks from West Bengal are stranded in other states due to the lockdown. No bidi merchant with sizeable business will start production till the Centre gives its nod,”Hossain added.
Secretary of Aurangabad-Dhulian Bidi Merchants Association Raj Kumar Jain said, “We welcome the much needed initiative of our chief minister. A lion’s share of Murshidabad’s bidi is sent to Uttar Pradesh, Punjab, Delhi, Assam, Haryana and states in south India but neither the Centre nor any of these states have ordered any exemption for production or transportation of bidi. Also, the state administration has not issued travel passes for munshis and labourers. Without passes they cannot move even inside the district.”
Minister of state for labour and a factory owner, Jakir Hossain said, “Our chief minister has taken a humanitarian decision for the sake of millions. I will appeal to the Centre to reduce the goods and services tax (GST) on bidi and allow consignments to be transported to other states.”