Publication: Women's Feature Service
Date published:
Language: English
PMID: 59130
Journal code: WNFS

Jharsuguda (Women's Feature Service) - Compare the daily regimen of Kunti Majhi, 12, a student of Class Seven in Odisha's Jharsuguda Girls' High School, with that of other schoolgirls in the country. She gets up early in the morning to make sure that she puts in two hours of 'beedi' (local cigarettes) rolling before leaving for school. The moment she is back home, it's 'beedi' rolling time again - sometimes for three hours at a stretch.

Barely in her teens, the one preoccupation in Kunti's life is making sure that she completes 500-600 'beedis' every day, so that she can get a sum of Rs 25 (US$1=Rs 49) to supplement her family income.

Kunti's father and elder brother are daily wage labourers, but a good part of their earnings go in alcohol. This means that her mother, Taramani, has had to bear much of the responsibility of keeping the six-member household going and does this mainly by 'beedi' rolling. But even with both mother and daughter doing their best, it is difficult for them to roll more than 800 sticks a day. And because Taramani has a perpetual cough, young Kunti has slowly had to roll more and more 'beedis' over time. She wants to study, she says, but asks poignantly, "Where's the time?"

While Kunti may worry about her lack of time for studying, her mother doesn't understand the big fuss being made over education. "Will her books feed us? My daughter should devote more time in 'beedi' rolling because it is our main source of income. Let her roll 'beedis' and at least we will be able to save something for her marriage," says Taramani.

Kunti continues, however, to cherish her dream of scoring at least 40 per cent marks in the final examinations so that she could get a scholarship of Rs 940 provided by the Union Ministry of Labour and Employment and continue in the classroom. But that dream seems impossible to achieve at the moment. In fact, what seems more likely to happen is that she will soon drop out of school altogether and take up 'beedi' rolling full time.

That, at least, is the trajectory of hundreds of children like Kunti, who because they can't keep up with their studies, just give up. In the process, they become workers but without any rights. Kunti has been rolling 'beedis' for the local Meghana 'beedi' manufacturing unit for five years now, but the company has not given her an identity card because employing children below 18 is illegal. As a result she is not only being deprived of an education, but even the few benefits that 'beedi' workers are entitled to, like medical support reimbursement up to Rs 7,000 in case of tuberculosis, and Rs 10,000 as group insurance in case of death.

In fact, even her mother doesn't have such benefits. Complains Taramani, "I have been rolling 'beedis' for 15 years now, but don't have an identity card. They come, take our photographs - supposedly to make a card - but so far have not issued one. In fact, we don't even have a BPL (below poverty line) card. Sometimes I wonder how we will survive."

Kunti's is a true example of a childhood irredeemably lost. Some girls get sucked into the industry very early, others after some tragedy or other befalls their families. For instance, life for young Himadri Oram, 16, took a turn for the worse, when her father, who worked as a construction worker, died unexpectedly. The family, especially Himadri's mother, had rolled 'beedis' at home to supplement the family income and Himadri would chip in sometimes. But once her father died, there seemed no recourse but for Himadri to take up 'beedi' rolling full time. Her schooling has become secondary; her dreams of becoming a teacher are fading fast.

In my random visit to a few hamlets in Odisha's Jharsuguda district, I found that many schools in villages like Orampada, Sarverna, Kutrachua, Amlipali and Jharianal, reported that they have had children dropping out because of 'beedi' rolling. Interestingly, the majority were girls and were contributing directly to their family income.

Says Minaketan Pradhan, a retired schoolteacher of Jharsuguda, "Schools can't retain these students because most of them are from very poor backgrounds with their families struggling hard to get two square meals." He added, "Surprisingly, the state labour and employment department doesn't seem to have any specific data that can tell you exactly how many children are involved in this hazardous profession and how many children have dropped out of school to work for the local 'beedi' rolling units."

According to Pradeep Sahu, Secretary, Kendupatta Karmachari Sangh, who is also a member of the local 'beedi' workers' union, "There are 27 registered 'beedi' companies operating in western Odisha, units like Meghna, Bharat, N Beedi, Badsha, Jay Bharat, Gola, Gopal Beedi, Janata Beedi, and so on. But there are at least an equal number of unauthorised 'beedi' companies operating in the area, who are making huge profits and exploiting about 1.5 lakh impoverished 'beedi' workers."

These workers are more likely than not to be women and children. Admits Durga Charan Ojha, Labour Officer, Jharsuguda District, "Our department is running 40 schools in this district for these child labourers through different civil society organisations. Each school can enroll at least 50 students. Now there are 1914 working children and school dropouts enrolled in 40 schools. Out of these, more than 70 per cent children are girls."

The problem is of attendance. Says a teacher from one of these schools, off the record, "Although we can enrol up to 50 students, we have only 35 students on our rolls, and of these only five to six students attend classes. Sometimes we have to close the school because no student has made it. Parents get irritated with us when we try and explain to them the importance of educating their children."

The 'beedi' industry in Odisha is marked by low wages, sub-human working conditions, and no rights. According to the state law, the minimum wage for a 'beedi' roller is Rs 65.78 for rolling 1,000 beedis, which would require an entire day. According to 'beedi' union leaders, usually employers release just Rs 45 or so per day to the middlemen who in turn pay only Rs 42 to the 'beedi' rollers. In fact, contractors, known locally as 'munshi', play an important role in the general exploitation. Sometimes they provide them with poor quality 'tendu' leaves and then discard the 'beedis' after they are made. They also do not hesitate to take away the finished 'beedis' without paying for them. Often 'beedi' rollers and their families fall into a vicious cycle of debt because they are forced to borrow from the contractors themselves.

"We are very concerned about people, especially about children, getting drawn into this hazardous occupation," says Sushama Sahu, coordinator of western Odisha Pragatisila Sramika Manch, a local NGO. Her organisation has conducted protests on the issue, even surrounding the collector's office on one occasion. According to her, opening schools for children working in the 'beedi' industry does not solve the problem. The community and especially parents need to be sensitised on the hazards of the occupation and the importance of schooling for their children.

The situation has become an extremely fraught one. Unless immediate action is undertaken by the government and civil society, hundreds of girls like Kunti and Himadri will continue to wear out their fingers rolling out this extremely toxic product.

(This article was written as part of Panos South Asia's media fellowships.)

( Women's Feature Service)

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