In Petuapara village, Rajnagar, Birbhum district of West Bengal, one can see women sitting together and making beedis in the afternoon. It is common for women of this village, of all ages, to roll beedis. They say, “No woman sits idle in this village. We all make beedis here.”
The villages in Rajnagar are segregated insofar as Hindus and Muslims reside in geographically separate villages. Petuapara is one such village where the inhabitants are Muslim families with no access to agricultural land and stable jobs. In July 2021, we conducted a focus group discussion involving twelve women beedi workers from Birbhum district in order to understand the nature of their paid work, the extent of unpaid household and care work, impact of the pandemic, and their desire to engage in more respectable jobs. From their responses, one could deduce that beedi making is a highly exploitative work, and the workers have received almost no institutional help. Moreover, the gendered nature of unpaid household and care work further impedes them to devote time to their paid work of rolling beedis.
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An immediately noticeable aspect of rolling beedis is its drudgery and monotonicity. Fatima Bibi echoed the women’s common sentiment when she says, “It is a lot of trouble: roll the leaves, cut the thread. We would not have done this if we could afford not to.”
They are completely dependent on mahajans (middlemen) who visit every week to supply raw materials – 1000-1500 sal leaves, 350 grams of tobacco, and thread – and to collect the beedis already rolled, against a paltry amount of INR 60-80 for 1000 rolled beedis.
The workers’ compensations have hardly increased in the last 20 years. Rafia Bibi has rolled beedis at rates as low as INR 30, about 10-15 years back. “I had to roll beedis for any possible compensation, to contribute to the family income, and get my sons educated. The rate has since increased to INR 80 now.”
The mahajans have neither been keen on increasing the wages nor in paying any bonus during festivals. Abida Bibi states, “We asked the mahajans many times to increase our remuneration. Other places have much higher rates INR 110 for 1000 beedis. Ours is still INR 70-80. They justify the difference in compensation on the grounds that we make small beedis which are of lower quality than others.”
This piece-rate form of payment makes it impossible for them to take breaks from work even when they are unwell, tired or are busy with household work. This problem is exacerbated for women who are the sole earners in the family. Saba Bibi who is a widow and stays with her three children states with a resigned smile, “The wages are obviously not enough. We barely manage to make ends meet.”
In spite of such poor quality of the job, the low earnings of these women are still crucial for the survival of their families.
These women start their day by reciting their prayers at four or five in the morning, cleaning the house, washing clothes, cooking, and looking after children. Instead of spending some time on leisure after their day’s work gets over, they sit down to roll beedis in the afternoon. They work till 4.30 in the evening, after which they engage in their evening prayers, and resume their household work.
Most women reported that no family member helps them with their housework and care work. When asked whether men help, Amina Bibi smirks, “No no….my husband doesn’t even have a glass of water on his own.”
Apart from usual housework, any additional work like taking care of cows and goats is also done primarily by women. All of them claimed that they could roll more beedis and thereby earn higher, had the burden of household work been lesser. 32 year old Fatima Bibi says, “We don’t even get the time to sit down and tie the beedis. Now my three sons have grown up, their food intake has increased; I have to cater to them more now.”
Tiredness due to the high burden of unpaid housework was a common feeling among these women. 46 year old Salima Bibi says, “There’s too much housework. I am too physically tired to sit down and do this work. Men of our households do not help us with it”.
She has stopped rolling beedis for three years now; her husband’s income is sufficient to meet the household expenses.
Women usually spend their earnings to buy food items, cosmetics, etc. for their children, to make interest payments, and save for their daughters’ marriage. Rabia Bibi says, “Why bother our husbands for every little purchase by asking money from them all the time?”
Impact of the pandemic
Most of the workers stated that the pandemic has not affected the demand for the product. However, phases of lockdown have caused unemployment among men in the family. When asked about the pandemic, Rafia Bibi says, “My husband works as a mason in Suri (a nearby city in Birbhum). Everything shut down during the lockdown and he was out of work. It was getting difficult to get by.”
Amina Bibi echoes a similar concern, “My husband used to be a mason. He also knows the electrician’s job. But he has not gotten any stable employment since the pandemic.”
Such uncertainties have increased women’s burden who act as supplementary earners of the household. However, the mahajans have not increased their wage rate during the pandemic.
Moreover, closure of schools since the pandemic has caused children to stay at home along with the husbands, implying an increase in the double burden (burden of doing both paid and unpaid work) of these women. Further, the closing of schools has deprived the children from their midday meals.
Lack of institutional support
“We have been making beedis for so long, but the government does not care about us”, Abida Bibi states and finds support among her co-workers.
The workers have held artisan cards since 2010-11, starting from when the Communist Party of India-Marxist (CPIM) was in power in West Bengal. These cards recognise them as beedi workers who are supposed to receive compensation in case of death or illness of the worker, and loans at subsidised rates. But the women unanimously claimed that these cards have never been of any use to them. Their situation has not improved after the change in regime in 2011 when the Trinamool Congress (TMC) came to power. Reshma Bibi recalls, “We were promised tap water, goats and other cattle by the TMC representatives. However, none of these promises have been kept.”
Saba Bibi rues, “We were supposed to receive compensation during our daughters’ marriage and also in cases of illness and death of beedi workers if we hold artisan cards. None of us have been paid any money. I am a widow but I don’t even receive any widow pension. Nobody cares about how we live.”
Salima Bibi complains, “I was chosen to look after the mid-day meals scheme in schools. I was promised Rs. 500, but I got nothing. The party members pocketed all the money.”
The workers were a part of a Union which had regular meetings in Kolkata. Not much good has come out of it, they say. Previously there were strict union rules whereby workers could not work for less compensation than a given rate. However, the workers claim that those restrictions no longer apply.
Ayesha Bibi states about the union, “Men in the union don’t talk about women’s work anymore.”
Some of the workers have taken loans from Bandhan Bank. Another institution providing loans is Mahila Samiti at 10 percent interest. However, they are very strict about the collection of interest payment.
Everybody complained about the lack of support from the government and the apathy that they have been subject to for years. Reshma Bibi states, “What do we get after working for so many years?”
Due to the highly exploitative nature of this job, the artisans expressed their desire to take up some other job. Reshma Bibi mentions, “Since most of us know to only write our names, we cannot take up jobs that require us to be educated. But we are willing to do other kinds of jobs like cleaning offices, cooking midday meals, sorting out papers and notebooks in schools, looking after gardens etc.”
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However, these types of jobs are not easily available in their village, and when they are, they are mostly taken up by people who share strong networks with local political leaders.
All the artisans that we had talked to earlier had mentioned about the pride that they take in following the craft and keeping it alive for so many years. However, their pride associated with this work is slowly waning, probably because this work is not a choice but a compulsion. The typical aesthetics involved in handicrafts are also missing in this craft. Further, as Saba Bibi mentions, “We don’t like doing this work. If we get better jobs, we will leave this job. Tobacco is an intoxicant, it is harmful for the body. Why would we want to do such a job?”
(The pictures have been taken with the consent of the women and have been provided by the authors to the publication.)
Annesha Mukherjee is a PhD scholar at Centre for Development Studies, Thiruvananthapuram.
Satyaki Dasgupta is a PhD scholar at Colorado State University.
The authors would like to thank Subho Nath and Swapnanil Mukherjee for their help and support in carrying out the survey.
Featured image source: National Herald