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Deaths Concealed in Making and Smoking of Bidi Cigarettes

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Physician's warning ignored by indifferent government

Case Study - A :
"... my affliction is not the problem of my life. The chief cause of my ailment is of rolling 400 to 500 Bidis a day, for which I have been a victim of the dreadful disease Tuberculosis (TB). This dreadful disease has not only driven me to such a position but also others of my village of my age, who do this job have been facing of same diseases like TB, asthma, respiratory problems, spondeliteis, blindness et cetera.

My parents, brothers, sisters and other aged members of my family have been suffering from these fearful diseases for a long time, due to their involvement with this type of work, and still they do it and do to maintain our livelihood. But of them only my sister and mother have come round from the attack of this chronic disease. But others are still suffering TB. They roll 1,400 to 1,500 Bidis a day and earn a sum of Rs. 25 to Rs. 35, which is quite insufficient to buy necessary protein-rich food and medicines to combat the diseases.

My grand-father died early at the age of 50 for want of these things (protein-rich diet and medicines et cetera) .....", lamented 13-year-old child Bidi worker, Jalenoor Khatun of Dhuliyan village in Indian West-Bengal State's Murshidabad district.

Case Study - B :
"... we live in those areas where there is no good arrangements of sanitation. So we are in need of building houses at low cost immediately to avoid this unhygienic condition of living. Over and above, we require community lavatories and health centers, drainage-system and facility for pure drinking-water to protect us from the attack of the dreadful diseases like TB, diarrhoea, jaundice, malaria, dysentery, cholera, et cetera. But if this is not done, it will turn in to an epidemic and as a result, our men, women and children will find no opportunity to survive and our generations will extinct in no time ...", regretted 45-year-old male Bidi worker, Mantu Seikh, from Molatikhamar village under Gauripur Police Station in Indian Assam State's Dhubri district.

Case Study - C :
"... presently, the price of various commodities are rising day by day and this creates various problems to keep the oil of family running smoothly. So everybody of the family is required to earn. Until there is opportunity to work and earn, we should avail of that opportunity ...", said 35-year-old Mahammed Iasin, one of the inhabitants of Domohona village under Karundighi Block village in Indian West-Bengal State's North-Dinajpur (earlier known as : East Dianjpur) district.

bidi-worker-3
Family view, where female members work together rolling bidi in a bidi factory in India to earn two-meals-a-day. Bidi workers union of North-East India claims in entire North-East India more than 10 lakhs woman and child bidi workers are engaged in this hazardous job, which creates tuberculosis, asthma, silicosis and other respiratory problems. Thousands of lives taken by TB. Bidi is the cheapest smoking for all people (especially those who live in below poverty line) and it is smuggled to neighbouring Bangladesh, Nepal, Bhutan, Srilanka, Myanmar, China, middle-east countries and USA, but it is banned in the USA, England, Switzerland and other countries due to TB.
Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee
... If any body of inquisitive nature intends to pay a visit to the few villages of Assam and West-Bengal, he or she would be astounded to find that in many houses, some or all members of the family are doing something bowing their heads upon their winnowing-platter (which is locally called : Kula or Kulo) at the same time gossiping this or that or talking to each other on some current local affairs. They are rolling "Kendu-leave" or "tobacco-leave" for making "indigenous-cigarette" called - "Bidi".

This work of Bidi making is carried on by all sitting upon their open court-yard, usually called veranda (that is, Uthan) in a circle from 8 a.m. to 7 p.m. from 8 to 10 year old children, their parents and even their grand-fathers and grand-mothers, all do this together. Even house-wives do this job in addition to their daily routine household works like cooking food in the kitchen, washing cloths, helping male members in the corn-field and so on, to earn something to support their family, which is the chief object of this job ...

Bidi-related diseases
Of all the diseases that frighten the people with death and diabolic end, none is so dangerous as Cancer. This incurable disease takes thousands and thousands of souls everyday from this earth. Its intensity is so frightening that it has terrified the entire globe and so every one from the ordinary person to the most educated are looking to find a cure.

The means to fight the disease and smoking being one of the chief causes, all desire to put an end to it either by socialisation or enacting an Act. But the most mysterious point is that realising all these dreadful consequences, a good number of people specially those, who live in this North-East part of India, still smoke. The inhabitants, whether a child, young or old, are prone to smoking and in this case they use Bidi the cheapest means for inebriation.

Moreover, the employees related to this industry are not free from the victimisation of the hydra-headed diseases like 'Tuberculosis' (TB), Cancer, Lung-diseases, Asthma, Respiratory-problems et cetera. These employees do not know how in disguise this means of income is leading them to the gate of annihilation. Bidi is the cheapest form of intoxication and so has been popularised in the countries like Britain, Europe, Russia, Middle-East and many other developed countries of the world. They prefer Bidi to cigarette for the price of Bidi is less than cigarettes.

Village Small Scale Industry
Bidi is an important industry in India. It is one of the noted 'village-small-scale-industries' and a huge number of poorer people live on the income derived from this industry. This industry is also important in Eastern Indian states like Sikkim, West-Bengal, Assam, Nagaland, Manipur, Meghalaya, Tripura, Arunachal Pradesh, Bihar, and in the other states of India - Rajasthan, Uttar Pradesh (UP), Madhya Pradesh (MP), Maharashtra, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhara Pradesh, et cetera. The peculiarities of this industry are that it does not require any heavy machinery. Very small tools are required to carry on this trade. This 'cottage-industry' has now become a 'family-profession' for almost all the members of a family get involved in this business. It is chiefly concentrated in all the Eastern Indian States, Assam, West-Bengal, and even Orissa.

This industry laid it's foundation some 70 to 75 years back, during the British regime. It's expansion came after independence. This industry is in full swing in West-Bengal Assam and other 'seven-sisters' areas of North-East India. The poor Bidi workers in these states are still outside the door of affluence. This industry provides 10% to 15% employment to those who have neither money nor education. The family background of these workers is also not a matter to be reckoned.

bidi-worker-1
A girl child (bidi worker) rolls bidi in a bidi factory in India. Instead of going to school and leaving education; an unidentified girl binds Bidi to feed family members at Gouripur, Dhubri district, the North-eastern Indian State of Assam
Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee
Observers investigating the industry found that even some students are engaged in Bidi-binding work, to maintain their family and pay for their education. The old men and women of some communities absolutely live on this trade. Child labourers are also found engaged in this work. But the most pathetic fact is that they can not earn according to their labour. Hence, the application of Karl Marx (the well known German Political Philosopher)'s surplus value. As a result, the owners of the factories are amassing money and property at the cost of these labourers.

Poor Wages
It is generally believed that for Bidi factory a vast space is required. In fact it is not so. The work of Bidi making can be done in a very small space. In the villages this work is done in a small room or courtyard, where husband, wife and their children do it together. Even old members of the family do not hesitate to render their help. The wage of the Bidi worker is not lucrative. They only make Rs. 25/30 to Rs. 35/40 per thousand. The female workers and child workers get much less than the male workers.

"In these districts, child and women labourers make Bidi, although there is no correct account of these labourers with the authority of the local Village Panchayet, Sub-division, District and City. More than 25,000 to 30,000 child-Bidi-workers and 40,000 to 50,000 woman-Bidi-workers are estimated in West-Bengal and Assam sector of Eastern India. Of these workers, 25% to 30% are children and 15% to 20% are women and 45% to 50% are males", according to a Bidi Union leader. But the Government records are shown in another way. In these records they were shown much less than the actual figure. These are made clear from the 'Identity Card' (IC) issued to them. The child labours are not give any IC and so it is impossible to give a list of the actual number of the child-labours employed in the Bidi factories. The women and men labourers have IC, child labours have nothing and it is illegal.

This proves that the workers of the Bidi factories are related with it at the grass roots level. The inhabitants of these villages also say that apart from this work many of them live as cultivators, rickshaw-pullers (known as : Rickshaw-wala), hand-barrow-pullers (known as: Thela-wala), vegetable-vendors, labourers, daily-wage-earners, rag-pickers, fish-sellers, et cetera. A very small number of male heads are found preparing Bidi. The male Bidi workers earn Rs. 2,500 to Rs. 3,000 a month after completing their daily routine works. But yet it does not help them to arrange square meals for the members of the family consisting 8 to 10 members. This forces the children and the women members of the family to make Bidi.

bidi-worker-2
A male child (bidi worker) rolls bidi in a bidi factory in India to support his family.
Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee
Bidi is a common man's article of smoking. It falls in the group of 'cottage industry'. Thousands and thousands of men and women make Bidi in their houses. The children make also it just before they go to play. But the wage they (children) get for making Bidi is very small. These men, women and children do this work in the yard of their houses. These yards are thus small industrial units. At the end of the week, the child labourer gets minimum Rs. 8/10 to maximum Rs. 10/12 per day against their service rendered for making 800 to 1,000 Bidis. While female labourers get minimum Rs. 14/15 to maximum Rs. 20/22 per day for making 1,200 to 1,500 Bidis. The astonishing fact is that children and women Bidi workers make more Bidi than the male Bidi workers and yet get minimum wages.

A woman Bidi labourer earns on average Rs. 400 to Rs. 500 per month, while a child labourer averages Rs. 300 to Rs. 350 per month. The demand of the child and woman labour is great as because, their wage is much lower and they make more Bidis than the men. There are 4,000 to 5,000 child Bidi labours and 8,000 to 10,000 woman Bidi workers per district engaged in this profession in North-East India.

Price rises also compel every member to work and thus provide provisions for the family. On the other hand, Bidi is an art and any bride who lacks this virtue is not entertained for marriage. So, the proverb goes on in the villages, "The girl who does not know the art of making Bidi can not claim to be a bride". Lack of education, lack of finance, failure of crops, frequent floods, lock-up of the mills and factories, family department et cetera are the causes which force the members of a family to work as a Bidi worker.

Bidi workers work on a contract basis. Therefore, they have no connection with the owner of the factory. In the Bidi making business, the contractors that is, middlemen (known as : 'Dalal') play a prominent role. There are various types of contractors who require various policies to carry out the business of the Bidi trade. Some are employed to collect Kendu-leaves, the most important raw material for making Bidi. Some are appointed to prepare Bidi. These contractors move from village to village with Kendu-leaves and Tobacco for making Bidi.

There is no direct connection between the Bidi worker and the owners of the factories. A Bidi worker is given 250/300 grammes of Tobacco and 400/500 grammes of Kendu-leaves. The quantity of Tobacco and Kendu-leaves goes on reducing as the workers fail to fulfill the contract. Therefore, the workers do their best to abide by the instruction of the contractors and make at least 1,000 Bidi.

Sometimes, workers are penalised for supplying raw materials of inferior quality. At present, Bidi workers are getting Rs. 25 to Rs. 28 for making 1,000 Bidi while in 1986, they only got Rs. 2 to Rs. 3. It is better than that of the previous income of the workers but not as good as general labour. As usual a labourer is entitled to get Rs. 55 to Rs. 60 per day, as per Central Government Order or Notice. But in 1994, the State Government formed as advisory committee for recommending scheme for the betterment of the Bidi workers. The committee recommended that a Bidi worker should get Rs. 30 to Rs. 35 for making 1,000 Bidi to add with Valuable Dearness Allowance (VDA) of Rs. 7 to Rs. 8 also. But the Bidi workers are not getting their wages as proposed by the advisory committee that is, Rs. 37 to Rs. 43. This agitated the workers and they got together to launch a movement against this injustice.

Whatever are the causes that compel Bidi workers to take part in the 'Labour Movement', they cannot involved in it wholeheartedly, because they depend on the Mahajan or Malik (that is, Owner). They will starve and die if they go on strike. So, the Bidi workers depend upon the owner of the Bidi factories who, maintains the continuity of the supply of raw materials. This is how they impose control upon the workers. The expenditure of the Bidi production also differs from State to State when, Rs. 20 to Rs. 22 is required to be spent in MP for making 1,000 Bidi, Rs. 25 to Rs. 26 be spent in Assam.

Bidi Export
The Government should undertake some programmes and make schemes to bring some betterment in the miserable life of these so called poor, helpless and deprived Bidi workers. The Bidi factories export a good number of Bidi to foreign lands in order to fetch much profit. In the United States of America (USA) and European states, each packet is sold for Rs. 70 to Rs. 80 whereas the same is sold here in India for only Rs. 2.50 to Rs. 3.00.

According to Indian Labour & Health Department, the rate per 1,000 bidis, in Indian States : Rajasthan - Rs. 22, in Bihar - Rs. 26, in Uttar Pradesh (UP) - Rs. 35, in Madhya Pradesh (MP) - Rs. 22.50, in Maharashtra - Rs. 20.35, in Gujarat - Rs. 18.50, in Tamil Nadu - Rs. 16.25, West Bengal - Rs. 14.50, in Kerala - Rs.25.20, in Karnataka Rs. 16.25, in Andhara Pradesh - Rs. 17.85 and in Assam - Rs. 18.00.

Thus, it can easily be realised how much profit the Bidi factories derive from this trade. Kendu-leaf is necessary for making Bidi. These leaves come from Maharastra, Madhya Pradesh (MP), Andhra Pradesh (AP), Bihar, Orissa, West-Bengal and adjoining areas. Of these, Bihar's leaves are of inferior quality. But the major supplier state of Kendu-leaves are the Western Indian States, Karnataka, Gujarat, et cetera.

About 60% of Kendu-leaves are supplied from Madhya Pradesh and West-Bengal supplies 40% of the leaves. In the North-East, the Bidi workers of West-Bengal are more efficient than others and so they produce better Bidis in comparison with others in Bihar, Orrisa, Maharastra, Karnataka, MP, AP, et cetera. The Bidi factories in the districts of Assam and West-Bengal produce more than 50% to 60% that is, 50 to 60 lakhs, Bidi in India.

This is one of the good virtues that the workers of these regions possess. Bidi working is not done in an organised way. The Bidi factory owner paid Rs. 1 to Rs. 2 per thousand to the Government as labour-welfare fee and Rs. 5 to Rs. 6 as tax. The Bidi workers allege that the Bidi factory owners do not spend anything for labour welfare, from the profit earned at their cost. The workers further said that they are deprived by the Bidi factory owners every day and their living standard is very poor.

The worker can not provide necessary amenities to the members of their families. This happens because they have neither any organisation nor any good leader. The condition of the factories is also pathetic. Further, the factories lack modern machines or other facilities.

Provident Fund for some
The owners of the Bidi factories know the socio-economic conditions of the Bidi workers. They also know that they have a future of their own yet the owners do not like to realise their poverty. The owners hesitate to spend even a very little of the income derived from the labour sacrificed by the workers. On the contrary, they spend this surplus value to enjoy their own life in pomp and pleasure.

A Provident Fund (PF) and gratuity are very necessary to protect the future of the Bidi workers.

The factory owners intend to keep themselves apart from these workers, especially in Assam State. In other provinces, the workers have their organisations and through these organisations they compelled the owners to make provision for PF et cetera. But this is not with the factories in Assam. They keep silent in this respect. It is true that the actual figure of the Bidi workers will come to light, if and when the PF system or scheme will be introduced. Apart from this, the actual volume of production will also be divulged which the owners of the Bidi factories never desire.

The workers were disheartened when they found that (Central and State) Bidi organisations did not put any importance to open a Provident Fund system in this province. The Bidi workers are not allowed to have these facilities like other factories granted by the Central Government, such as : free education, free medical treatment and provision for free shelter, drinking-water-system, job opportunity, et cetera. In the mean time, the owners have made a provision to allow Rs. 20,000 as an advance to build a shelter to live in. The money is given to them in three different installments or stages, that is, Rs. 8,000, Rs. 7,000 and Rs. 5,000 to see the progress of works.

About 10 years ago, this house building advance or so called 'loan' was Rs. 13,000. Of this the worker were required to repay Rs. 10,000 with interest within 9 months. The workers are now free from these obligations.

In fact, the Bidi workers have no future, which is also another cause of indulging into movement. "The Bidi workers working in the Bidi factory often fall victim to diseases like Asthma, Tuberculosis (TB), Arthritis, Spondilitis, eye, shoulder and back bone pain, blindness et cetera", claimed the TB Hospital Doctor, of Assam State. These diseases many a time take away the life of the Bidi workers. The workers are paid little and so can not bear the burden of treatment of these long standing diseases. The owners of the factory try to avoid the responsibility of the problems, alleged the Bidi workers. So TB has become an epidemic in these areas, where Bidi worker live and work. "75% to 80% of the workers who remain engaged with this profession are the victims of this disease. 50% to 70% of workers bear the TB virus", claimed the physician, Dr. S. D. Mazumder of a Public Health Centre of Bidi Workers of the Indian Assam State.

According to the physician of the Primary Health Centre or Public Health Centre (PHC), TB virus dwells here every where and waits to have an entrance in to the bodies of the workers. Generally the members of each family prepare Bidi sitting together in a circle where one or more TB patients live, who spread the TB virus. This virus later on is inhaled by others and they also become the victims of TB. TB has reached epidemic proportions and spreads through nasochromial infarction. Although, poverty is the chief cause that forces the Bidi workers to become the victims of TB disease even though the industry earns crores of money and also helps the state to earn a lot. The Bidi workers afflicted with TB are very poor and so they can not continue their medicines and as such the disease re-attacks and makes them weak and ill.

Neither medicines nor good food will put an end to the recurrence of this disease, because social awareness and economic rehabilitation are also necessary. It is also noted that in USA, Bidi smoking has been banned. Bidi caused increasing TB and Asthma in the USA.

It is a fact that Bidi is the poor man's smoke. It also fact that with nearly 85% of the world's bidi tobacco grown in India and with 70% of tobacco smoked in the country being in the form of bidis, more Indians have now been found to be dying of bidi smoking than from all other forms of tobacco combined. According to the country's first bidi monograph, for every cigarette, eight bidis are sold in India.

And what's worse, nearly 2.3% children, aged 13-15 years, have taken to it. Compared to less than 100 billion cigarettes, India produces approximately 700 billion bidis annually, almost all of them consumed locally. While India has 2.9 lakh bidi growers and 44 lakh bidi workers, 50% of them ultimately die of tuberculosis or asthma. Shockingly, children and women constitute 76% to 80% of the total labour force in bidi manufacture, earning anywhere between Rs. 29 and Rs. 64 per 10,000 Bidi rolled. It is also estimated that 10% of all female bidi workers and 5% of all male bidi workers are children under 14, who work 12 to 15 hours a day, 7 days a week without a break. Sometimes, women Bidi workers do this work the whole day after finishing their own household work, with their aged men and women.

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) and United States Department of Health and Human Services, Bidi is killing 600,000 people annually in India. India is home to 100 million bidi smokers. At present, 800,000 people die due to tobacco consumption in India, among whom 600,000 should be due to bidis alone.

bidi-worker-5
Before holy Ramzan an unidentified Muslim woman is busy binding Bidi to feed family members at Gouripur of Dhubri district, North-eastern Indian State of Assam.
Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee
According to doctors, bidi smoke contains high levels of proven class 'A' carcinogens like nitrosamines and toxins like carbon monoxide, ammonia, phenol and hydrogen cyanide. Bidi may contain lesser tobacco than cigarettes - .2 grams, but delivers as much or more tar and nicotine.

Bidi workers with TB are three times more prone to die. According to the Indian Health Department, bidi crop cultivation occupied 35% of the area under tobacco cultivation. Assam, West Bengal, Tripura, Bihar, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Tamil Nadu and Karnataka were the epicentres of bidi rolling in India, while Gujarat and Maharashtra were the major suppliers of bidi tobacco leaves.

Annually, 150,000 tonnes of tobacco and 3,00,000 tonnes of Kendu Leaves are used to manufacture bidis. What's worrying is that bidis are mostly smoked by people in low economic classes. In India, about 19% of tobacco consumption is in the form of cigarettes while 53% is in the form of bidis. This monograph will help us work out useful interventions to curtail bidi smoking habits.

Children and Women comprise a whopping 72.4% of the bidi rolling industry workforce in India's Assam, Tripura, West Bengal states, according to a new study titled 'Hands That Roll Bidi', conducted by the Self-Employed Women's Association-Bharat.

The report, based on a socio-economic survey, pointed out that bidi rollers suffered posture-related problems and complain of pulmonary diseases caused by inhaling nicotine. The study also revealed that on average, bidi rollers (children and women) contributed 55.41% of the total income of families studied. "Bidis seem to be the major source of income of the surveyed households.

It was found that the percentage of working children and women in the total population of surveyed households exceeds men. A majority of them are in the bidi industry, while the remaining are in agriculture", the study concluded. According to the report, the minimum wage rate is fixed on a piece-rate basis - the traditional measure being 1,000 bidis. Though the state wage rate is Rs. 35 to Rs. 39 for 1,000 bidis, many rollers are actually paid Rs 35.30, as contractors reject bidis that lack quality and do not conform to specifications.

bidi-worker-4
A house wife (bidi worker) rolls bidi in a bidi factory in India.
Photo: Shib Shankar Chatterjee
The Bidi industry is an important industry in India. Specially for the States of Assam, West-Bengal, Tripura, Bihar, Orissa, Tamil Nadu, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, it is one of the noted 'village-small-scale-industry' in this part and a huge number of people in poorer sections live on the income derived from this industry.

The Children (specially, hamlet areas), women and young men, who are working in the Bidi industry are compelled to adopt this particular odd job due to various reasons, the chief reasons are as follows

Firstly : The people of the states are poverty stricken, Secondly : Lack of education,
Thirdly : Reduction of cultivable land and so agricultural activities have been affected,
Fourthly : Seasonal unemployment. During off season, when agricultural activities remain suspended, the agriculturists go to Bidi factory to work and earn for their family and
Fifthly : Lock-up of the factories or mills and job scarcities. Sometimes, some mills or factories are compelled to close down for want of finance or such other causes. This leads the unemployed labourers to become Bidi workers.

Government Ignores Issues
Children are the main bread and butter earners for their family. And to support and earn two-meals-a-day, these unfortunate children are bound to go and to adopt this so-called cottage industry job with their parents. As a result of this, their health, nutrition, education, social and economic conditions detoriate day-to-day. The most unfortunate thing is that even knowing this, the Government of India doesn't pay any heed to it.

According to the social scientist, it is a kind of 'Children's Rights Violation' case. Apart from this, for better and safe life, to protect social security and to meet up their basic necessary amenities, these unfortunate children (in most rural areas of India), who are working in the Bidi industries have forcibly fallen into the dangerous, hazardous atmosphere.

Therefore, though Bidi is a common man's article of smoking, in fact, the Bidi workers have no future, which is also another cause of indulging into movement. So, the Governemnet of India should take immediate suitable steps for this reason (especially care for the children, who are working in this particular hazardous industry), before the situation gets completely out of hand.

References :
a) Behind The Smokescreen, Northeast Sun, New Delhi, Delhi, India, Dated May 15-31, 2001, Page Number-18, by Shib Shankar Chatterjee.
b) Death Conceals Making & Puffing Bidi, Dainik Asam, The Assam Tribune Group, Guwahati, Assam, India, by Shib Shankar Chatterjee.
c) Report of World Health Organization.

Shib Shankar Chatterjee is a former BBC, The Times of India, Hindustan Times & The Statesman Contributor from Northeast India, who specializes in investigations of important issues affecting the people of India and Bangladesh.

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