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The inner world of bidi workers

By Aloka Kujur, Ranchi

Bela bibi lives in a ramshackle mud-house in Kismatkadamsar village, district Pakud in Jharkhand.  Only 22 years old, when she first entered this house as a bride, Bela did not at the time know how to make ‘bidis’, nor was she at all familiar with what goes into this rather innocuous looking item.  Her lack of skill in this activity was anathema in a household where the source of livelihood was’ bidi making’ a cottage industry which spread out impressively across the region.  It was the economic foundation of the household.

Her status as ‘uninitiated’ into the bidi trade did not remain for long though.  She was quickly brought to speed by her mother-in-law grooming her in different aspects of the trade.   Soon Bela picked up and her fingers were flying.   So it was for hundreds of households in this village, largely Muslim families. Hasiba bibi, Kharijun bibi, Shahida bibi, Shayara bibi all came into their hushand’s home, learnt the trade and today full fledged workers in the bidi industry, contributing to their family income.  This is something they could easily do while attending to their other domestic tasks and earn an income sitting at home. Indeed, it was figuratively speaking; the ‘bidi’ that was lighting the ‘chulha’ (cooking stove) in many homes.  The hearth fires were kept burning through ‘bidi making’. 

What is interesting is that around the village, across the region, other avenues of earning a wage have opened up yet Kismatkadamsar remains cocooned in its traditional occupation. It is almost that the women do not want to venture out to explore their options.  Quizzing Bela bibi on this, she says, “ We do not venture out of our homes. Our culture does not allow that.  We are aware of new opportunities to earn but for that we will need to step out of the house.”  Talking to her it becomes increasingly clear that it is a combination of factors, that keeps women like Bela in their homes, tied to the trade. The all-subsuming poverty that young women like Bela grew up in deprived them of an education.  Thus they needed to opt for a trade, a skill that did not require the education, even the rudiments of it.  Then there is the social stigma against women moving out of their homes to work.  All of this comes together for numerous Muslim women in Kismatkadamsar village. It is like a collective consciousness, which keeps women at home, rolling bidis. 

Bidi making in the region is like a tradition passed down from generation to generation.  A way of life that binds these women not only to their homes but also to each other.  Watching these women, huddled together in groups, singing while their fingers ply the bidis, one wonders if this meets a need beyond the obvious economic one?  Do they hide the obvious state of poverty and deprivation through this trade, seeking companionship and comfort in through this common activity? 

There is dynamism in group activity which eggs these women on.  They goad each other into producing more as in this trade; the payment is according to the number of bidis rolled. For every 1000 bidis, rolled they are paid Rs.55/- . Payments are settled every 7 days. This is reason enough for these women.  They are not in direct touch with the bidi companies, most of which are based outside Jharkhand, in Andhra Pradesh, West Bengal, U.P, M.P and Gujarat.  The interface is largely through ‘agents’ who conduct the entire operations. 

All this is fine with the women.  They say that they do have time aside from their domestic chores which they then ply into this trade.  It helps them pass their time, instead of idle gossip and alongside earn an income. 

However, the sad truth about this trade invariably makes itself apparent in the later years of these women. For the skill or trade, Bela bibi and countless women like her are involved in is no harmless activity.  The close proximity to tobacco, inhalation of its fine dust, for years and years takes its toll and catches up with these women at a time, when their natural buoyancy and youthful energy is on a decline. They are plagued with various illnesses emanating from their physical connection with bidi ingredients. It is ironical that the very activity that these women undertake to improve their lives, in a sense destroys it. 

It actually has a dominoes effect.  The trade gets invariably passed onto the children who instead of going to school prioritise helping their mothers in the bidi making.  It almost exists as an unwritten law affecting lives of the Gen-Next.  Infact it remains a critical factor in the marriage eligibility of young girls.  If she does not know how to roll bidis, chances of finding a good groom are bleak.  This makes mothers push their daughters into the trade, disregarding the signs of their own failing health and brushing away the apparent dangers. The trade then has entrenched itself into the lives of the community, partly due to their poverty and lack of income-generation alternatives but equally due to the social pressures that prevent people from breaking out of the mould, the social conditioning that surrounds it.

Yet the fact remains that it is an unorganised industry with their employers remaining anonymous, amorphous. The fall-out on the health of these women can be disastrous.  There does not seem to be any choice for these women, which is what is tragic.  They remain generation after generation bound by the same reasoning, the same need for an income and circumspect by societal norms and economic considerations.

(Charkha Features)


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