Jayanthi, a frail looking woman with spectacles and cropped hair, does not spend her days resting even though she is 75 years old. Living in thatched hut in Ashok Nagar, Mangaluru in Dakshina Kannada district of Karnataka, Jayanthi has been rolling beedis for the last 60 years, and must continue to do so even now to support herself, especially after her husband died in 2006 due to a prolonged illness. Her sons left her after getting married and beyond some occasional help, do not support or visit her.
Living alone for seven years, Jayanthi suffers from deteriorating health and eyesight. Her labour only earns her Rs 180 a week, which amounts to Rs 800-900 a month. And the health hazards of her work have meant that she ends up spending a good chunk of this money on buying medicines for weakness, vision problems, back and knee pain.
“For her hard work Jayanthi has not received any benefits, social or otherwise, except for a nominal monthly pension of around Rs 500 ($7). She still lives in abysmal conditions and has to continue the drudgery of beedi rolling just to survive,” says a recently published study, which looked at women in the beedi rolling industry in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu.
Done by AF Development Care and published in August 2020, the study surveyed 496 women beedi rollers from two districts each of the states, and made a case for a policy change to declare beedi rolling from women a hazardous activity.
Over seven million people work in the Indian beedi rolling industry, which is a predominantly unorganised sector. Five million of them are women, a large majority of them, work from home, and for meagre wages, despite the time spent in the industry.
In Karnataka, the researchers surveyed women in Dakshina Kannada, Ramanagara and Bengaluru rural districts. In Tamil Nadu, they surveyed women from Tirunelveli and Tenkasi districts. Of a total sample size of 496, 400 were rolling beedis at the time of the survey, while others previously did so. The average annual income of beedi rollers was found to be Rs 24,787, which accounted for only 24% of the household income. Further, due to the health hazards associated with the work, the women spent on average Rs 7,248 per year – 29% of this income – on treatment for these health issues.
While most had a minimum two rooms in their homes, on an average, a room was shared by two persons among those surveyed. "It can be inferred that tobacco dust from beedi rolling may be creating more respiratory related health problems to the women beedi rollers and other family members including children,” the study found.
Among the resulting health problems, the main issues were found to be weakness, breathing difficulties, lower back pain cough, bronchitis, body ache, body ache, abdominal pain etc. While 68.9% of the workers reported feeling fatigue and weakness sometimes, frequently, or always, 61.4% reported experiencing breathing difficulties to the same degrees. Further, while 36.5% women said that they always felt lower back pain, cumulatively 65.6% women said they felt symptoms of bronchitis sometimes, frequently or always.
“While 27.5% workers had health exigencies up to Rs 5,000 per annum about 5.5% reported spending an average of more than Rs 10,000 per annum. 2.5% of workers incurred more health expenditure than their beedi-rolling income,” the study found.
In the current study, it was found that women who had left beedi rolling and adopted alternative occupations earned significantly more – an average of Rs 58,431 a year. The study gives the example of Nagalakshmi, who was born into a father and mother who worked as a coolie and a sweeper respectively. Unable to finish her schooling beyond class 8, Nagalakshmi was married off to a poor tailor and sent to Tirunelveli at 18. She took a beedi rolling to support her growing family, and seeing others in her neighbourhood doing the same. She earned Rs 6 per 500 beedis rolled in a day in 1993.
It was only two decades later that Nagalakshmi was able to shift occupations after her four children had grown up, thanks to her sister-in-law introducing her to basket making. “Although it was difficult for her to make three baskets per day during the initial period, she has become skilful and after six years in the job can now weave 10 baskets a day, which she sells in nearby villages and towns,” the study says. Prior to the COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, she was selling 10 baskets a day and earning Rs 2000 more a month than she would have done rolling beedis.
And 53.8% of the women surveyed expressed a desire of wanting to shift from beedi rolling to another profession. However, there were several factors holding them back.For one, in 97.3% cases either the company or agent or middleman decides the wage rate. While this is one of the reasons behind non-revision of the wage rate also, “middlemen target the poorest and the most vulnerable of women, ensuring that they do not know who their employers are,” says Sachi Satpathy, the principal investigator for this research project and Director of AF Development Care.
Poverty, or lack of funds or financial support was found to be the major obstacle for 51.2% women to shift to another profession. “This is followed by lack of training (18.6%), need to work at home (7.9%), lack of market linkage (5.6%) and lack of family support (5.1%) were the primary factors behind their failure in shifting to alternative occupation,” the study said.
In the light of these factors, Sachi insists that the government should make at-home beedi rolling hazardous so as to protect these vulnerable women. “It doesn’t matter how long they do it, they will continue to be poor. The industry is an exploitative one, as are the middlemen. The government needs to develop programs to skill them and provide them with alternative livelihood options,” he says.
Interestingly, the researchers chose Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for their research because these states – apart from Andhra Pradesh and Telangana – have also succeeded in reducing the number of women beedi workers in the industry by one million. In a previous study by the AF Development Group, researchers reckoned that the reason behind this decline in the southern states – even as India added two million beedi rolling workers from 1993 and 2018 – were in the south states’ pro-women policies in the last three decades. While Tamil Nadu has seen a decline of 5,41,000 women in beedi rolling, Karnataka has seen a reduction of 1,16,500.
Policy changes have also given them alternative livelihood options. The largest number of established being registered under women in Tamil Nadu as well as high female literacy, gender budgeting in Karnataka, changes in property laws and better sex ratio are come of the reasons that the southern states have fared better, Sachi wrote for The Print.