India's Tobacco Girls
Five-year-old Aliya thinks it is some kind of a game she must soon master to be a winner. From the time she wakes up till she goes to bed Aliya watches her mother and all girls and women in her neighborhood consumed in a frantic race. They all make beedis – the traditional hand-rolled Indian cigarettes.
For each beedi, the roller painstakingly places tobacco inside a dried leaf sourced from a local ebony tree; tightly rolls and secures it with a thread; and then closes the tips using a sharp knife. For anything between 10 and 14 hours, regardless of how long it takes, Aliya’s mother and others must all roll at least a 1000 beedis to earn a paltry sum of less than 2 dollars paid by the middleman. The beedi manufacturers, however, make billions of dollars.
The cigarettes are taken to warehouses of large manufacturers, packaged and sold in the market for a much higher price. The beedis are so popular that they make for nearly half of India’s entire tobacco market. But, behind the country’s unorganized domestic tobacco sector, lie invisible millions who are trapped in modern day economic slavery.
In Aliya’s town of Kadiri in Andhra Pradesh alone, hundreds of families have for generations relied on beedi rolling as their only means of survival. The labyrinthine, congested lanes of Kadiri slums are home to an assembly line of humans functioning like robots. Young girls and women alike can be seen rolling cigarettes in groups out in the open. Some sway, some rock back and forth appearing entranced, while others have developed odd muscular motions as they push their work speed to the edge of human limits. For most, if they do not roll enough beedis every day there simply will not be food on the plate. “The pressure to keep up with the speed and meet the target is so intense that many skip their meals and even avoid drinking water so they do not need to go to the toilet,” says Shanu a community volunteer.
Almost all beedi workers in Kadiri, like the other beedi manufacturing pockets in India, are female and a large of number of them young girls. The home-based process is preferred by men over sending women and girls outside for work. Aliya has already started her lessons early and is practicing rolling beedis using cuttings of plain paper. “I want to roll beedis and give money to my mother,” she says.
A study released nearly three years ago estimated a scandalous number of over 1.7 million children are working in India's beedi rolling industry. Children are knowingly engaged by manufacturers due to belief that children’s nimble fingers are more adept at rolling cigarettes. Under the Indian law, beedi rolling is defined as hazardous work. But there is a loophole wherein children who assist their parents in their work do not come under the purview of the law.
“Formally, it is the women who take on the orders from the contractors. However, behind the scenes given the pressures these women face in terms of delivering on huge volumes, invariably children, mainly girls, get pulled into this to support their families in beedi rolling,” says Anita Kumar, senior program manager of child rights organization Plan India. As part of its global campaign ‘Because I am Girl’, Plan has started a program focused on girl child labor in Andhra Pradesh, including girls involved in beedi making. The project will directly impact the lives of 1500 girls over the next 3 years. “Plan will invest on awareness-raising on the rights of the child and on the harms of putting children into labor. We are aiming to create a model by working with communities and the local government structures to ensuring that children are prevented from falling into this cycle,” says Kumar.
From unhealthy living conditions to exploitative wages, slave-like working conditions and severe health consequences - the situation of beedi workers involves violation of their fundamental rights and freedoms on many levels. The majority of girls are pulled out of education by the time they complete primary school to support their families’ income.
Youngest among four siblings, 11-year-old Salma dropped out of school last year when she completed grade 4. “I wanted to continue going to school but we are very poor and have been struggling to pay the rent,” she says as she struggles to draw breath. Salma is suffering from jaundice and is so frail she can barely sit straight. Yet, she is tasked with rolling up to 1500 beedis a day to support her family. Squatting on the floor and hunched up, she rolls cigarettes for over 12 hours every day and still earns just over two dollars. In addition to jaundice, Salma has also developed a ringworm infection on her wrist, quite common in the area due to poor hygiene and sanitation. She is in dire need of medical attention but visiting local hospital means a day off work due to long queues and a day’s wage in transport. Her parents cannot afford either.
The health impact on beedi workers is visible on all age groups. Tuberculosis, asthma, body pain and postural problems related with hips and joints are most common. Continuous beedi rolling leads to absorption of high doses of nicotine directly through skin. The skin on the children's fingertips begins to thin progressively, and by the time they reach their 40s they cannot roll cigarettes any more. Mahboobjaan, a mother of three girls, is in her mid-30s and is already losing sensation in her hands. ”My hands often swell up. I don’t know what I will do if I can’t roll beedi anymore,” she says.
The worst thing for beedi workers is the feeling that there is no protection, no welfare, no State support. They vote but have no power or effective representation. For all development indicators they remain at the bottom of the ladder all their lives. Even among them, girls suffer the most. Throughout their life cycle their basic rights are violated; as children, as child brides, as young mothers, they continue to fight for survival with extreme labor and economic slavery.
In summer as the temperatures reach 45 degrees Celsius, streets in Kadiri are engulfed in a stifling cloud of tobacco dust. Infants play among heaps of tobacco leaves. Covered in a pool of sweat, young girls roll beedis with their eyes transfixed on their tobacco tray. Older women, who cannot roll any more, help with trimming the ebony leaves. The work continues till late in the night just to secure next day’s meal and to keep a roof above the head.
Next morning, and for most every single morning for rest of their lives, it is exactly the same story. The breathless race to 1000 starts with 1 all over again.
(Names of children have been changed to protect identity.)
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