The plight of Telangana beedi workers who are already dealing with low wages and are forced to work lesser number of days seems to have worsened due to the COVID-19 lockdown.
The beedi workers wrap/roll beedis at karkhanas (factories) or from home after getting their supply of tendu leaves and tobacco. The present lockdown in the wake of the COVID-19 threat, however, has left many without work.
Several woman workers and beedi rollers told TNM that the beedis they had rolled and kept ready before the lockdown were also stocked at their homes, as the karkhanas and their transport facilities had come to a halt.
For a majority of the workers, the beedi industry is their only source of livelihood as most of them hail from landless or small-scale agricultural families.
In many families in the districts of northern Telangana, women look after children and work from home as beedi rollers while men migrate to Gulf countries for employment.
The Telangana Department of Labourâ€™s annual report for 2018-19 shows that there are 4,69,323 registered workers employed in 8,029 registered beedi and cigar establishments across the state, but activists say that the number of workers could be as high as 7.20 lakh.
Thanks to the prior market conditions and alleged impact of the Goods and Services Tax (GST) on tobacco products, even before the lockdown the condition of the beedi workers was not a happy one. The 18% GST on tendu leaves and 28% GST on tobacco products was already having a devastating impact on the beedi industry, the workers say.
Regula Swaroopa (32) from Nagepur in Bodhan sub-division of Nizamabad district says, â€śEarlier we used to get at least 10-15 days of work giving scope to earn a minimum of Rs 1,500 monthly, now after the lockdown things have changed for the worse.â€ť
Beedi workers who have Provident Fund cards are given Rs 2,016 as monthly pension by the state government. However, those who donâ€™t have PF cards do not get this financial help either. In the wake of COVID-19 pandemic, the Telangana government announced and disbursed Rs 1,500 for each family besides rations for those holding white ration cards.
Swaroopa adds, â€śWhile I received the Aasara pension, I didnâ€™t get the Rs 1,500 assistance. If this situation continues, it will cause us a lot of problems.â€ť
She says the workers are discussing with the karkhana supervisors to ensure that they open for work.
29-year-old Chowka Sandhya from Nandipet says, â€śWe have already lost one monthâ€™s wages. Itâ€™s not really possible to manage our monthly expenses with whatever the government is giving. Mere rice does not make a meal. We need vegetables, dal and more.â€ť
Sandhyaâ€™s husband Rajeshwar, a Gulf returned electrician, says that earlier whatever she earned was used for the childrenâ€™s expenses and to run the house while whatever he earned would be used to repay debts.
After the erstwhile Karimnagar district, Nizamabad district has the highest number of beedi workers in the state. With the state government starting jobs under the National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (NREGA), several beedi workers are choosing to look for employment there instead.
Suguna Nimmala from Muchkoor of Bhimgal says, â€śItâ€™s not possible to survive without work. Families canâ€™t survive with the governmentâ€™s compensation alone, as everyone is at home. When NREGA jobs that involve physical contact can be done, governments should allow beedi karkhanas to open, as we anyway work at our homes.â€ť
The workers say that they are clueless about what to do if the crisis continues.
Several women beedi workers are also collecting tendu leaves for future use, as the price of the leaves may go up further after the lockdown is lifted.
Beedi workers in search of tendu leaves, shot at somewhere on the stretches Pocharam wildlife sanctuary in Lingampet of Kamareddy in Telangana."There is anyway no work after #coronalockdownuk, if we procure tendu leaves now we can at least use them later."Balamani 40 tells. pic.twitter.com/yHFVPLuUoFâ€” CharanTeja (@CharanT16) April 16, 2020
K Sadanandam, Vice President of the Telangana Bahujana Beedi Karmika Sangam (TBBKS), says that the current lockdown has worsened the woes of the workers in an industry that was already reeling under a crisis.
Speaking to TNM, he says, â€śCompanies should bear the losses and give Rs 5,000 to each beedi roller as compensation. We have given notices to the concerned labour officers.â€ť
He further says, â€śThough the governmentâ€™s assistance to the families of the beedi workers is helpful to some extent, it doesnâ€™t really address the gravity of the crisis. Half the beedi workers donâ€™t get Aasara pension as they donâ€™t have PF cards. Many people have not got the assistance due to technical glitches, such as errors in Aadhar cards and Post Office accounts.â€ť
The beedi companies on the other hand say that they will take a decision based on the directives or decisions that the government will take later this week.