It’s just before noon in mid-February and the street in Telangana’s Ramareddy housing a handful of beedi ‘karkhanas’ (workshops) is abuzz with activity. Several women are seen arriving with baskets full of beedis while some are seen leaving with tendu leaves and tobacco for the day’s work.
Amidst the bustle, 36-year-old K Savitha collects her stock of tendu leaves and tobacco before setting off for the day to roll beedis. Speaking to TNM about the ongoing crisis in the beedi industry, she says work has reduced for beedi rollers like her.
“Our karkhana gives us work for merely 10 days in a month. The remaining days we have to figure something else to do,” she says.
Savitha adds that she has begun working as an agricultural worker to make ends meet for her family. She is among the over 7 lakh beedi workers in the state, whose numbers are especially high in the northern districts of Nizamabad, Karimnagar, Adilabad and Warangal.
A majority of the beedi workers hail from landless or small-scale agricultural families, and for many the beedi industry is the only source of survival.
Nineteen-year-old N Ashwini of Sirikonda in Nizamabad, a fresher in the beedi rolling business, says, “As both my parents are agricultural labourers, I thought that I’d assist my family by taking up beedi rolling. But this is not paying well.”
Ashwini says that if the situation does not improve, she would also have to start working in the fields as a labourer.
The plight of beedi workers is similar across Telangana’s districts as their living expenditure grows rapidly but their wages remain unchanged. Add to that a steep decline in the number of working days, and many workers say that it has become financially unviable to continue.
In a series of conversations with several beedi workers in Nizamabad and Kamareddy districts, TNM tried to assess the ground situation.
M Balamani from Issannapally says, “For rolling 1,000 beedis, which takes almost the entire day, we get roughly Rs 170. Even as we are complaining about inadequate wages, the number of working days are going down, making it difficult to draw even the existing meagre wages.”
Replying to a question, the 48-year-old says, “When we ask them why they’re not giving us more working days, muneems say that the traders are asking them to periodically stop production as there is no requirement of stock.”
‘Muneems’ are supervisors who oversee distribution of stock and payment of wages at the ground level.
In and around Kamareddy, there are more than 10 beedi manufacturing companies, each owning units across villages. Undivided Karimnagar district has the highest number of beedi workers. In many cases, women take care of children at home by working as beedi rollers while men migrate to Gulf countries for employment.
According to the Telangana Department of Labour’s annual report for 2018-19, there are 4,69,323 registered workers employed in 8,029 registered beedi and cigar establishments across the state. But it is not just the beedi workers who are facing problems. Lower-level labourers who work in beedi factories as sorters, packers and movers are also losing jobs as the companies are opting to cut costs.
A blow due to GST
Fifty-year-old Balachandram has been a muneem at Vaani Beedi Company’s karkhana in Ramareddy for the last 15 years.
He says, “We used to get at least 35,000 to 40,000 beedis per day earlier from 100 to 120 women workers. After the government started levying Goods and Services Tax (GST) on tobacco products, now it has come down to 20,000 beedis or less. Sometimes we are not even giving out work.”
GST is a comprehensive tax on the supply of goods and services that was implemented by the Centre in 2017 across India. While the government has claimed GST will lead to many benefits, many critics have pointed out that the tax has adversely affected small-scale traders and artisans.
Chatla Srisailam, a trader and a member of the Beedi Traders Association, points out that the industry has been shrinking over a period of time for different reasons, including awareness about the ill effects of beedis on one's health.
“The state of the industry has not been good over the last two decades. In the last 2-3 years it has got even more mired,” says Srisailam, while attributing the current crisis to the imposition of GST on tobacco products.
“An 18% GST on tendu leaves which are used to wrap the beedis has put a heavy burden on the traders and increased the cost of production. A whopping 28% GST on tobacco products has also vastly affected the sales and consumption,” he adds.
According to a study by the Centre for Public Policy Research (CPPR) last August, the statutory GST rate of 28% plus compensation cess will increase the price of cigarettes and beedis by 0.18% and 8.8% respectively. Due to this, it is estimated that the weighted average consumption will go down by 0.3% and 10% and increase tax revenue by 0.17% and 35% respectively.
Traders and supervisory staff at beedi karkhanas say that they are forced to stop production periodically as the demand for beedis in the market is decreasing.
Each beedi roller is provided 650 to 800 grams of tendu leaf to produce a thousand beedis. According to the rollers, the yield depends on the quality of the leaves.
M Swapna, a 40-year-old beedi worker who has to walk 4 km to collect her stock, says, “As the traders want to reduce costs, they’re buying low quality leaf, which in turn reduces the number of beedis we are able to make. If we want to roll more beedis, we have to buy leaves on our own. Even if we bear that additional cost, the wage of Rs 174 per 1,000 beedis we are given is really paltry.”
According to 35-year-old B Padma, a seasoned beedi worker from Navipet in Nizamabad, a kilogram of tendu leaves costs between Rs 130 to Rs 150. The increase in the price of the leaves and a decrease in its quality has added to the woes of the beedi workers.
K Sadanandam, Vice President of Telangana Bahujana Beedi Karmika Sangam (TBBKS), is of the view that the industry’s present condition is a result of negligence by successive governments.
“If reducing tobacco consumption is the goal of a policy, that should affect all products. Why is it hitting only the beedi sector, where the poorest of the poor work? The policies over a period of time have ultimately helped multinational companies while ignoring the future of the country’s poorest sections.”
Sadanandam adds, “When there is a decline in the number of working days, the government should provide for the workers or take measures to give them a livelihood. Companies and governments are equally responsible for the crisis.”
Srisailam adds that the price of beedis and perceptions about beedi consumption is also affecting the industry.
“Cigarette smoking is seen as modern. Nowadays, no one wants to smoke beedis even in villages as they can spend a little more and buy cigarettes instead,” he says.
Health issues galore
Activists and workers claim that despite tall promises about welfare schemes by the government, the ground reality is dismal. There are also severe health issues that take a toll on the beedi rollers.
According to several studies, the most common occupational health hazards for beedi workers are neck pain, lower back pain, anaemia, throat infections and tuberculosis, to name a few.
Talking about her health problems, Balamani says, “No one wishes to suffer like this. Severe back pain, breathing problems and pain in the chest are common as we have to remain stiff while rolling beedis. But we are suffering as we don’t have any alternate source of livelihood.”
Balamani says that the same company that used to give her and other rollers work earlier should provide them with employment in a new sector.
She says, “If they want to put an end to beedis completely, then they should show us a way by employing us in other fields.”
Though Balamani seeks alternative livelihood, she says that she has no clue about what a better option is. Like many others she knows, she too goes to work under the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA) when there is something to do.
What is the state government doing?
While the government claims that the state has over 4.6 lakh beedi workers, activists claim that it has excluded those who do not have a Provident Fund (PF) card.
A study on Poverty and Health Status of Beedi Workers in Andhra Pradesh done in Karimnagar district before the state’s bifurcation showed that 17.8% of the beedi workers are Scheduled Castes (SC) while 0.9% are from Scheduled Tribes (ST). A major chunk, that is 74.5%, are from Backward Classes (BCs).
The state government gives Rs 2,016 as monthly pension to as many as 4,07,757 workers, which mainly comprises women from marginalised sections.
M Kalavathi, a 35-year-old beedi roller from Padmajiwadi of Sadashivanagar, says, “The pension is obviously welcome in these times of joblessness and gives us hope for survival, but it will be more helpful if we have work.”
She adds, “It has become tough to find work even for two weeks in a month. We are either forced to work as labourers or find other things to do.”
The state government has also repeatedly argued that the 28% GST on the beedi industry must be removed, as beedi rollers were aware of the health effects but were continuing in the profession to eke out a living.
Need for alternate employment
Many groups have been demanding a higher tax on all tobacco products and saying that the government should do more to discourage their sale and consumption, given the serious impact they have on health.
However, this will affect the livelihood of several lakh workers who are dependent on the tobacco industry, and activists have pointed out that they must be provided alternate employment.
Surya Vamshi, a senior activist with the Telangana Progressive Beedi Workers Union who is also associated with the Indian Federation of Trade Unions (IFTU), says that state and central governments should provide allowances to the workers who will be left unemployed.
He adds, “The state government should take measures to implement Government Order (GO) 41, as per which the minimum wage for 1,000 beedis per worker should be Rs 258.”
TNM also spoke to Dr Y Ramana Reddy, Professor and Head, Centre for Livelihoods at the National Institute of Rural Development (NIRD) Hyderabad, about the concerns of unemployment and the crisis that has hit the industry after implementation of GST and other policies.
“If any policy reduces tobacco consumption, it will enhance a healthy society as the industry not only affects consumers but also the workers. But the concerns of rehabilitation and livelihood are there and a critical study needs to be done to look into available opportunities,” he notes.
He further adds that strengthening the existing MGNREGA scheme and providing skill development training to workers who are affected and channelling them to alternative forms of income generation is the need of the hour.
“Encouraging this labour into other sustainable sectors has to be examined at ground level by an agency to understand the potential solutions by taking the ideas of the affected labourers into consideration,” he says.