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State Scan

Sigh rollers

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FINDING A LOOPHOLE: Manufacturers duck laws by outsourcing work to contractors, who recruit children and women to roll bidis in their homes

Eleven-year-old Jamnur didn't even get time to mourn her father Abu Khatum. Abu had been a bidi roller for over 20 years and spent the last seven battling tuberculosis. The morning after Abu lost his fight against this deadly disease, caused by years of handling tobacco, his daughter Jamnur took his place. Shy and reticent, she rolls bidis with the practiced ease of an experienced hand. Aware that tobacco had caused her father to contract TB, she reluctantly mumbles: "Bidi na badhle khabo ki. Bidi na thakle ekhane keu khabar pabe na. (What will I eat if I don't do this work. Everybody in this town will die of hunger if they don't roll bidis. ). "

Jamnur is a resident of Jangipur, a small town in Murshidabad district in north central Bengal. Better known as former finance minister and Rashtrapati Bhavan hopeful Pranab Mukherjee's constituency, Jangipur is also home to hundreds of young children and adult women labourers who spend a majority of their waking hours rolling tobacco.

People rolling bidis are to be found everywhere in this dusty little town. Equally noticeable are the palatial houses where bidi company owners reside. In a touch of the grotesque, these stand cheek by jowl with hundreds of fragile mud houses where women and children toil an average of 12 hours a day. Jolly, a giggly teenager, is among the many girls rolling bidis with Jamnur. Like most others here, she is enrolled in the local school but finds no time to attend classes. "In Jangipur, everybody wants a girl child.

It's because she can then sit at home, roll bidis and earn money for the family. And TB is the most common disease in our families. It will kill us too. But we have no choice, " she points out, before adding, "I wish I could become a doctor or a nurse. Pranab babu should have helped us with jobs or to grow alternative crops. "

Bhavna Mukhopadhyay from the Voluntary Health Association of India, who is working to rehabilitate young children here - by enrolling them for free computer diplomas - is scathing in her criticism of the situation here. "It is ironical that an industry which doesn't pay fair wages, flouts child labour laws, evades taxes and manufactures a hazardous product that kills millions of people each year, also enjoys political patronage. "

Bidis dominate India's tobacco market. According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey, bidis are smoked by 9. 2 per cent of the adult population (above 15 years of age) as compared to 5. 7 per cent for cigarettes. The World Health Organisation says India is actually home to 100 million bidi smokers, who are clearly gambling with their health.

According to P C Gupta from the Healis Sekhsaria Institute for Public Health, bidis may contain less tobacco than cigarettes (0. 2 grams) but they deliver as much or more tar and nicotine. "Bidi workers with TB are three times more prone to die. Bidis are killing 600, 000 people annually in India. With nearly 70 per cent of tobacco smoked in the form of bidis, more Indians have now been found to be dying from smoking bidi than from all other forms of tobacco combined, " says Gupta.

Bidi rollers also suffer from constantly inhaling tobacco dust. They have high rates of TB, asthma and other lung disorders. "It is estimated that 10 per cent of all female bidi workers and 5 per cent of all male bidi workers are children under 14 (which is illegal, in such 'hazardous industries' ) who work 14 hours a day, seven days a week without a break, " said Dr Gupta.

Despite a 1991 Supreme Court ruling that child labour in tobacco should be prohibited, more than 3, 25, 000 children work in the bidi industry. "For their labour, they may earn as little as four rupees a day. Bidi rolling is classified by the Child Labour Prohibition and Regulation Act as hazardous because the working position produces chronic back pain, interferes with normal growth patterns and causes physical deformation, " says Mukhopadhyay.

Manufacturers also duck other laws. The Factory Act, 1940 applies to premises that employ more than 20 workers. To escape such liability bidi manufacturers show fewer workers in factories and outsource work to contractors, who tap children and women to roll bidis in their homes. Yet, to safeguard the interests of such 'invisible' labour, the Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act, 1966 was passed, which made manufacturers liable for bidi rollers indirectly hired through such contractors. The Act gives protection to rollers who have an identity card issued by the proper authority. But, say experts, illiteracy and lack of awareness means most rollers work with cards, uncounted and hugely exploited. Just like the women and children of Jangipur, who toil away in its serpentine bye-lanes, quietly and without complaint.

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