Child Labor, Illnesses & Lost Childhoods | India’s Tobacco Industry

“While sitting for hours in the same position, my back pains a lot mostly shoulders and neck”, says Gulapsa (name changed), 10, in Murshidabad, India. Almost every alternate days each one of us gets a headache, cough or chest pain due to rolling beedi, with each passing day we had managed to fit in it, with a sigh she ended.

 

Visual Artist and Documentary Photographer Masood Sarwer is the Edge of Humanity Magazine contributor of this documentary photography.  From the project ‘Burning Both Ends’To see Masood’s body of work, click on any image.

 

Minara, 23, has started to roll beedi within weeks of delivery of her 2nd child in Murshidabad, India. “Rolling beedi with infants in our lap is very common here” – says Minara. The sad part is that even they know that this will harm their child, they have no choice but to continue. They reported that their babies fall sick often, with vomiting, diarrheas and fever.

 

At the time of holding a pencil, their fingers hold beedi in Murshidabad, India. She cuts tendu leaves into small rectangular pieces and puts tobacco flakes inside tendu leaves and rolls it down with a yarn tied over it, securing it tightly and tucks its one end with a small iron rod to make one beedi. She rolls 1000 sticks of beedi, rocking back and forth for 12–14 hours a day to earn a partial sum of less than 2 dollars.

 

“For the past three hours my wife is going through pain in her chest”, but there are no doctors here in the hospital, says Ajlema Bibi’s husband, at Tarapur Hospital. Ajlema Bibi, 28, is an active beedi roller, she has developed respiratory problems due to rolling beedi from an early age. They have been waiting for hours along with other patients for doctors to come.
Tarapur Hospital is the only hospital in Murshidabad district which gives free treatment to beedi workers but one needs beedi cards to avail of these facilities but in reality, most cards are issued to non-beedi workers through bribes and favoritism, resulting in genuine beedi workers being deprived of their benefits & facilities.

 

Children of beedi workers attend evening tuition classes which are conducted by NGO – Marfat, who has tied with Rotary India Literacy Mission to give free tuition to primary students, who are lagging in their studies in Murshidabad, India.
Most of the students are beedi rollers or come from the beedi family. Most of the beedi workers admit their children to school, but a majority of girls are pulled out of education by the time they complete primary school to support their family’s income.

 

Murshidabad is situated on the eastern banks of the Ganges river and shares a 150 km-long porous border with Bangladesh which is notoriously crime-prone for smuggling, human trafficking & prostitution.

Once it was an important center of the silk trade but presently, it is India’s largest center for rolling beedi where almost all young girls roll beedi (hand-rolled cigarette) from their homes, involving a violation of fundamental rights & freedoms.

Due to the changing course of the Ganges, there is a constant loss of agricultural land causing severe erosion to over two million people. One of the major reasons why the beedi industry flourished decades ago.

It has a population of over 7 million where 75% depends on beedi. About 90% workforce constitutes of women & girls who roll beedies from the premises of their homes from an age of 5. Girls go on to roll 1000 sticks of beedi, rocking back & forth for 12–14 hours a day to earn a partial sum of less than 2 dollars. According to NFHS-4 (2015-16),

the Murshidabad district records the highest number of child marriages in India with 39.9%. “Demand in the matrimonial market depends on the speed & accuracy of rolling and education has no place”.

Girls absorb high doses of nicotine through their fingertips & end up inhaling tobacco dust which causes tuberculosis, asthma, anemia, eye infections, gynecological & respiratory problems. Back pain & spondylitis is common due to sitting several hours at a stretch in the same position. They can’t afford treatment in private hospitals & hide their diseases due to slander in the society & continues to roll which makes even worse.

When newborn babies are exposed to tobacco their eyes burn in pain and effects their overall growth.

Currently, India is the second-largest tobacco consumer & third-largest tobacco producer in the world. Out of 20 million beedi workers in India, 80% are females. Each year around 600,000 people’s deaths are tied to beedies. Beedi/pan sectors employ most of India’s 12.66 million child workers. Of India’s total tobacco consumption, 53% is in the form of beedies.

I find the rapid rise of beedi culture disturbing & that’s what drives much of my research & photography.

 

Shamoli Das, 10, (class 4), rolls beedi during night time at her home in Murshidabad, India. She has started rolling beedi along with her mother from the age of 7. Her father works in a local beedi factory. The entire family depends on beedi.

Children like Shamoli Das are cheated out of play, education and health – effectively denied a childhood and it is a fate of every girl here, who are into rolling beedi.

 

Shipra, 12, (class 7) skipped her school to complete the beedi production along with her mother in Murshidabad, India. Shipra’s younger brother doesn’t roll beedi. 
Girls are knowingly engaged who believe that their nimble fingers are more adept in rolling beedies.

 

Boys have the liberty to play and roam free while girls are made to roll beedi at home.

 

Girls submit their rolled beedies to Munshi, in Murshidabad, India. Munshi-Middlemen (agents and sub‐agents) who provide raw materials (tendu leaves, tobacco and thread) on behalf of branded beedi companies to beedi workers. These munshis collect rolled beedies from the workers, make payments and hand over the beedies to the of the beedi companies.

 

A small girl is get laid down in a box by her friends which were created by bordering its wall with grass straws in the playground in Murshidabad, India.
She holds her doll which symbolizes an Indian bride. At the age of 3-5, girls get time to play with other children and with their dolls as they are too small to roll beedi and can’t even help in domestic work. Soon within few years, children start to learn the art of rolling beedi and before puberty, they gain mastery over it.

 

” Unheard echoes of lost childhood “

 

All images and text © Masood Sarwer

 

 

See also:

INTIMACY

By Masood Sarwer

 

 

 

 

Edge of Humanity Magazine is an independent nondiscriminatory platform that has no religious, political, financial, or social affiliations.

We are committed to publishing the human condition, the raw diverse global entanglement, with total impartiality.

 

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