February 22, 2020
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Stubbed-Out Sticks

The bidi barons and the politicians play with the law. And two million labourers live and work in slave-like conditions, earning nothing but chronic ailments...

Stubbed-Out Sticks

THE family of Chokhelal, 70, who rolls bidis for a living in the Sant Ravidas ward of Sagar district, is in a dilemma as to who should be taken to the doctor first after they sell off their 'tapariya', localese for a hut. For, both Chokhelal and his 55-year-old brother Khemchand are suffering from several respiratory and stomach ailments as a result of being in the bidi-making business for years and need help immediately.

"I have been suffering for more than 10 years. I vomit whatever I eat within minutes," says Chokhelal, who has been reduced to a bag of bones. He says doctors at the government hospital have never treated him properly and private doctors, besides charging exorbitant rates, have only told him that handling tobacco for years has damaged his liver and digestive system. While the thought of losing their home upsets his wife Phool Rani, Khemchand's wife, Sakun Bai, is more troubled because her husband can't roll bidis like before. "Haath mein bilkul taakat nahin hai isliye kam bidi ban paati hai (he has no strength left to roll bidis)."

 Their story is no different from that of more than two million bidi rollers in Madhya Pradesh.But the worst off are those in Sagar district which has the largest bidi workforce, estimated at between 3 to 4 lakh. Most suffer from respiratory and stomach diseases, malnutrition, stiff joints—because they have to sit hunch-backed for long stretches to roll the bidis—and poor eyesight. According to Dr K.K. Jain of the Bidi Workers' Hospital in Sagar, apart from tuberculosis, asthma, scabies, these workers often suffer from bronchitis, cervical spondylitis, lumbago. As most parents work at home, the children are also afflicted with similar diseases.

What makes matters worse is the living conditions in their shanties, slums or ghettos which don't have basic amenities—safe drinking water, sanitation, health care. The result: most bidi workers have an untimely death. This after slogging 12 hours a day every day of their life; rolling 800 to 1,000 bidis and earning a measly Rs 15 to Rs 20 for them. But even if they do work 365 days a year, their annual salary wouldn't be more than a pathetic Rs 8,100.

Why is a bidi worker's life such a disaster? Well, a nexus of manufacturers, contractors, bureaucrats and politicians has successfully short-circuited labour laws to clamp down on the workers. When the Minimum Wages Act and Factories Act in 1948 provided for better working conditions, the factory owners decided to close the worksheds because if the bidi-workers remained on the factory campus, they would have to be paid better. The entire bidi-rolling work was shifted to domestic homes. To make matters worse,bidi barons introduced a sattedar or a middleman who would collect the bidis from these workers' homes and ferry it to the manufacturers. This "small satrap's" word soon became law.

When the Bidi Cigar Workers Act, 1966, listed the home-bred bidi-worker as an employee—and hence deemed it essential that he should get all the benefits—it didn't work either. Thirty-two years later, only eight lakh out of an estimated 22 lakh bidi workers have been issued identity cards. Which, of course, doesn't guarantee proper wages—because the sattedar gives out the wage slip at random. And since bidi workers are mostly illiterate, the sattedar often changes their names in the register without their knowledge. No wonder then that despite efforts by AITUC and CITU, there are just 1.20 lakh workers who have a provident fund account—the number was just 22,000 till 1992.

This, despite the fact that the sattedar deducts the PF money from each listed worker every month. "It is being deducted from all the 22 lakh workers but is deposited in just 1.20 lakh accounts. Of them, 25,000 to 30,000 are packers and labellers in the worksheds or are on the personal staff of bidi seths," says Ajit Kumar Jain, AITUC president, Sagar District Bidi Worker's Union.

Recently, on the recommendation of the Minimum Wages Act Committee, the state government decided to fix a dearness allowance for bidi workers at the rate of 2 paise per 1,000 bidis rolled in accordance with the price index. The rate would be revised every six months. Bidi barons promptly challenged the decision in the high court; chief minister Digvijay Singh went into a huddle with the bidi seths and agreed to bring down the rate to 1 paise and they withdrew the petition. Now, CITU has challenged Digvijay's decision in court.

The ruthless exploitation of the worker begins from stage one itself. He is handed 650 gm of tendu leaf and 250 gm of tobacco to roll 1,000 bidis. The new rate: Rs 22.50. Most of the time, the tendu leaf is not enough for the bidis, which means the worker has to supply the material himself. At the end of the day, the sattedar unleashes his whip and cheats the worker. Sometimes, he refuses to accept some bidis, saying they haven't been rolled properly, which means the worker has to pay from his pocket.

In 1993, the National Commission on Rural Labour drew the government's attention to this unbridled form of exploitation. Five years later, nothing has changed. Virendra Kumar, the local BJP MP, pleads helplessness: "The workers are being exploited. They are dying an untimely death. I know that they are in a bad shape. But I couldn't do much because I got very little time and the government at the Centre was not ours."

 AITUC's Jain blames bidi seths and the political parties funded by them for the plight of the workers. "Using their clout, the bidi seths have stalled the industrial development of Sagar and ensured that there is no alternative job opportunities for the workers."

 In 1989, Vitthal Bhai Patel, a minister in the Motilal Vora government and a bidi baron himself, suggested that the bidi industry should be turned into a cooperative. But other bidi seths rejected it. "I agree that the workers are living in a pathetic condition. But the Centre is to be blamed for it, not us," says Sunil Jain, Congress MLA from Sagar district and one of the owners of the Khemchand Motilal Jain Tobacco Products.

He claims that the government has been charging cess of 30 paise on every 1,000 bidis from the owners for the workers' welfare fund. "If they have not been able to uplift the workers despite having crores of rupees at their disposal, why should we be blamed?" he asks.

Jain has a point. The Welfare Commissioner's office at Jabalpur which controls the cess money showed us its track records: out of nearly 2 million workers, it could find just seven eligible for distribution of spectacles in 1993-94; it traced 20 cancer patients and 378 TB patients in three years despite the fact that medical surveys have shown almost 50 per cent of the workers suffer from TB.

A few years ago, a PUCL report revealed that sattedars in Jabalpur were deducting a rupee from workers on each 1,000 bundle of bidis, ostensibly for a "charity fund". The money, admit several sattedars, was paid to government officials so that labour laws could be bypassed at will.

Things have reached such a pass that the workers appear resigned to their fate. "We will accept the job even if we are paid less. We have nothing else to do," says Chokhelal. At this precise moment, Virendra Kumar of the BJP trooped in with his men to solicit votes with folded hands. In a rare outburst, Chokhelal muttered that the politician is the enemy—joote marne chahiyen netaon ko. Congress, BJP dono milke humko ulloo banate hain. As Khemchand's wife prepares the evening meal out of the cheap jowar, she blurts out: "Babuji, we eat food no animal will touch. What have we done to deserve this?"

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