In­dia’s work­ers toil, hand-rolling cig­a­rettes

The China Post - - BUSINESS - BY NINA SHAH

Zainab Begum Alvi and her band of young helpers hunch over bas­kets filled with tobacco flakes and dried leaves, try­ing to roll a thou­sand dirt-cheap cig­a­rettes a day at the be­hest of In­dia’s pow­er­ful bidi barons.

“I have to do it, no mat­ter what, even if I’m not well. I have no other choice,” says Alvi, who earns 70 ru­pees a day, a lit­tle more than US$1 (NT$31), for her 12 hours of toil han­drolling the bidis.

“There is no other work than this, so if I don’t do it, I can’t do any­thing else,” added Alvi, a tiny and gaunt woman from the im­pov­er­ished north­ern state of Ut­tar Pradesh who says she is in her 50s.

Around 70 mil­lion In­di­ans smoke the han­drolled bidis, which are nim­bly bound to­gether by work­ers such as Alvi and her young rel­a­tives with khaki-colored tendu leaves and cot­ton thread.

The bidis out­sell their fil­tered, pa­per-bound ri­vals by eight to one, giv­ing the in­dus­try’s bosses a fi­nan­cial and po­lit­i­cal clout that crit­ics say ac­counts for the re­cent shelv­ing of plans for larger health warn­ings on packets.

‘No link to can­cer’

Three law­mak­ers from the rul­ing Bharatiya Janata Party on a Par­lia­men­tary com­mit­tee look­ing into the is­sue were widely con­demned when they cited a lack of ev­i­dence that smok­ing caused can­cer as a rea­son for stalling the mea­sure.

“There is no med­i­cal ev­i­dence that bidis cause can­cer,” said Shyama Cha­ran Gupta, one of the three law­mak­ers on the com­mit­tee and who heads a com­pany that pro­duces one of the in­dus­try’s best-sell­ing brands.

“It is mis­in­for­ma­tion cre­ated by NGOs, a few doc­tors and the anti-bidi lobby.”

Bidis have long been mar­keted as a “nat­u­ral” prod­uct, wrapped in a leaf with no ad­di­tives or pro­cess­ing.

But cam­paign­ers such as Prakash C Gupta ar­gue they can be more danger­ous than nor­mal cig­a­rettes as they are smoked in greater quan­ti­ties, with more fre­quent and deeper puffs.

“The bidi in­dus­try has huge po­lit­i­cal clout. Bidi in­dus­tri­al­ists are in po­lit­i­cal cir­cles at very high lev­els in all par­ties,” said Gupta, a lead­ing re­searcher into the health im­pact of tobacco.

Up to 900,000 In­di­ans die ev­ery year from causes re­lated to tobacco use, ac­cord­ing to gov­ern­ment fig­ures, and re­searchers have warned that fig­ure could reach 1.5 mil­lion by the end of the decade with­out more de­ter­rence.

While a packet of 20 nor­mal cig­a­rettes can cost in ex­cess of 150 ru­pees, a bun­dle of 15 bi­dies can sell for as lit­tle as five ru­pees, their price kept low by fa­vor­able tax rates.

Most bidi smok­ers are poor men living in ru­ral ar­eas, but they are not alone in risk­ing their health for the small sticks.

Up to 90 per­cent of the roughly 5.5 mil­lion bidi rollers are fe­male, ac­cord­ing to the All In­dia Bidi, Tobacco and Cigar Work­ers Fed­er­a­tion, with the gov­ern­ment es­ti­mat­ing up to a quar­ter are chil­dren. Most of the rollers are non-smok­ers. But con­tin­u­ously ex­posed to tobacco dust, many suf­fer from high rates of re­s­pi­ra­tory dis­eases in­clud­ing tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and asthma, as well as skin and pos­tural prob­lems, stud­ies have shown.

A 2010 study of bidi rollers in the state of Bi­har found that more than 70 per­cent of the work­ers suf­fered from eye, gas­troin­testi­nal and ner­vous prob­lems while more than half suf­fered from re­s­pi­ra­tory prob­lems.

‘Back-break­ing work’

“It’s back-break­ing work with a huge num­ber of health haz­ards and the com­pen­sa­tion for that is a pit­tance,” said Alok Mukhopad­hyay, head of the Vol­un­tary Health As­so­ci­a­tion of In­dia (VHAI), which has re­searched the plight of rollers.

Laws en­acted in the 1960s and 70s to im­prove the wel­fare of work­ers only en­cour­aged man­u­fac­tur­ers to frag­ment pro­duc­tion into smaller units to es­cape reg­u­la­tion, cam­paign­ers say, with the added ben­e­fit of tax ex­emp­tion for pro­duc­ers who re­port out­put of fewer than 2 mil­lion bidis a year.

Just a frac­tion work in fac­to­ries, with the vast ma­jor­ity home-based and de­pen­dent on a sprawl­ing net­work of small-scale con­trac­tors of the ma­jor brands.

While the set-up com­pli­cates cal­cu­la­tions of the in­dus­try’s eco­nomic might, es­ti­mates of an­nual pro­duc­tion range from 750 bil­lion to 1.2 tril­lion sticks, sug­gest­ing a sec­tor worth bil­lions of U.S. dol­lars.

In back­room fac­to­ries such as Alvi’s home in Ut­tar Pradesh’s Kan­nauj dis­trict, chil­dren of­ten work along­side rel­a­tives to help them meet quo­tas.

“I don’t like it,” said Alvi’s 14-year-old niece Seema, pitch­ing in af­ter a morn­ing at school.

“I want to go to school for longer, but I can’t be­cause of bidi rolling,” said Seema, who dreams of be­com­ing a teacher.

Nearby at the New Sarkar Bidi Fac­tory — a rag­tag op­er­a­tion in a derelict shell of a build­ing — men and young boys work in near dark­ness pack­ing bidis at light­ning speed, first into moun­tains of col­or­ful packets and then into boxes.

Gen­eral manager Quazi Naseem Ahmed, who says his com­pany turns over 400 mil­lion ru­pees ( NT$198.6 mil­lion; US$6.4 mil­lion) a year from 16 fac­to­ries, in­sisted the boys only ap­peared un­der­age as they had been weak­ened by years of hard work.

Speak­ing to AFP in his of­fice, Ahmed ac­knowl­edged it was a tough life but also re­jected talk of a link to can­cer.

“They are weak, they are dirty, they get tired, so they have low im­mu­nity but they don’t get dis­eases like TB or can­cer,” he said.


In this pho­to­graph taken on April 13, a young In­dian la­borer looks on as he sits in near dark­ness pack­ing bidis into col­or­ful con­i­cal packets and boxes at the New Sarkar Bidi Fac­tory in Kan­nauj, some 200 kilo­me­ters southeast of New Delhi.

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