Child Labour in India

Bidi is a leaf-rolled cigar made of coarse tobacco prepared for smoking. Bidi industry is one of the foremost cottage industries in India. India’s rank varies between 4th and 5th in total tobacco consumption in the world after Brazil, U.S.A. Turkey and Zimbabwe. Tobacco is traditional item of India's foreign trade. India is one of the leading Tobacco exporting countries in the world. The principal market for Indian tobacco is U.S.S.R, U.K, Japan and Middle East countries.

According to recent studies, 76 per cent of bidi rollers earn a partly Rs. 33 per thousands bidi rolled, though it takes at least 12 hours. This is much below the minimum wage fixed by the government. There are thousands of registered and unregistered bidi manufacturers and nearly more than 4.5 million workers are engaged in the ‘unorganized’ home-based sector of this industry. The bidi industrialists are very cleverly evading the provisions specified under the labour laws – the Child Labour Act 1986 and Bonded Labour System (Abolition Act 1976). There are about 300 manufacturers of bidi brands and thousands of small scale contractors and manufacturers involved in bidi production in India. There are approximately 4.4 million full time workers and another 4 million in bidi industry related jobs. Most of them are largely poor and illiterate. A large part of the bidi industry is largely unregulated and home-based, making it difficult to regulate the working conditions and implement welfare laws. 76% of bidi rollers earn a paltry amount of Rs. 33 for every 1000 bidis rolled, which takes up to 12 twelve hours or more a day. This is much below the minimum wage fixed by the government and barely enough to support an average family of 5 to 8 members. The bidi industry in the name of home-based, door-step employment exploits women by not paying minimum wages as recommended by government.

The bidi rolling industry has been forcing the involvement of children especially minor girls at the age between eight and ten as part of a working family. Children comprise 15 to 25 percent of total employment in the bidi industry. Interestingly, India’s child labour laws do not cover child who help families chore. But bidi rolling is one of hazards works and it can not be considered as household chores. Recent study has recommended that the provisions of this Child Labour Act should be strictly enforced with immediate effect to prevent engagement of minor girls from this occupation at the cost of a lost childhood.

There is widespread exploitation, particularly, of women and minor girls in the industry by a group of middlemen, sub-contractors as well as factory owners. Women workers including minor girls are suffering from health problem and basically they suffer from lung infection and even tuberculosis. But the only hospital, established the government for bidi workers is far from their villages where they reside. For example, only one hospital for bidi workers is located at Dhulian in Murshidabad, a district in central West Bengal in eastern India. That hospital is not only too far from their villages, workers can not spend so many hours, from their busy schedule of rolling bidi, to reach hospital. The reasons! Earning their daily bread is more important than spending time in hospital.

A study conducted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) found that female bidi workers preferred to receive treatment form private hospitals and medical facilities in their own villages. Similarly smoking is the biggest risk factor of all heart diseases and other problems related to lung, digestive system, skin, bone, reproductive system and tobacco causes cancer. Similarly tobacco causes various diseases like tuberculosis for women workersunfortunately, although there is nation wide anti-tobacco campaign, the commercial importance of this industry can never be undermined due to revenue earning and employment generation capacity of the crop. Because tobacco is a principal cash crop of national importance and it has been playing a prominent role in the development of nation’s economy. More than 6 million people are engaged in the farming, rolling, packaging grading, manufacturing, distribution and other related activities. And there is no economically viable alternative crop which is as remunerative as tobacco to farmers. Bidi rollers are constantly exposed to tobacco dust and hazardous chemicals. They experience exacerbation of tuberculosis, asthma, anaemia, giddiness, postural and eye problems, and gynecological difficulties. When bidis are stored in the house, food spoils quicker and family members experience nausea and headaches.

Nearly 225,000 children are engaged in bidi making. Children help their mothers, fathers and siblings with bidi rolling. They work all day with no breaks or holidays. On school days they roll bidis before reaching school and again continue after returning back, without any wages. India government has developed polices aimed at monitoring working conditions and providing social security benefits for the welfare of bidi workers, but the reality is policies have done little to improve the working conditions and livelihood of bid workers. The government and so called trade union leaders can not protect individuals, especially children (minor girls) from being forced into labour when parents can not repay loan and run a family. According to trade unions, the majority of bidi workers do not have Identity Cards, while the government estimates that only about 15 per cent bidi workers do not have ID cards.The standard practice of government’s labour officials is to issue an ID card to only one member of the family even when other members (at least five) of the family also roll bidi. So, children do not have ID card. But millions of children in India are engulfed in this darkness. Their innocence and child lost in the bid to eke out a living. Books, school and toys are beyond their reach because of poverty – harsh reality of being poor. Plight of a girl child (labour) in bidi industry in West Bengal can be showcased when the Indian government has banned the employment of children under the age of 14 as domestic help of or in the hospitality industry.

State Government has to play a very vital role to stop the child laborer in this bidi industry. Any law can’t sop this child laborer problem, until Government can give an alternative source o income for this poor people it will be very difficult to stop child laborer in this diseaseful industry. To regulate the bidi industry, and to enable bidi workers to demand their legitimate rights, there should be a fool-proof registration system and ID cards provided to all workers and contractors so that the benefits can reach them. There should be immediate enforcement of the provisions under the Bidi and Cigar workers (condition of employment) Act 1966, Bonded Labour System (Abolition Act) 1976, Child Labour Act 1986, Bidi Workers Welfare Fund Act 1976, and the Bidi Welfare Cess Act 1976 to improve the overall working conditions of the bidi workers and give them their rightful benefits. Implementation of poverty eradication programmes like the NREGA of Government of India can be an immediate alternative solution for bidi workers. It is also suggested that the ICDS scheme and the Sarva Siksha Abhiyan programmes should be implemented in bidi rolling areas to encourage bidi workers to send their children to schools. Bidi workers can also be linked to vocational training institutes according to local market needs.The provisions of the Child Labour (Prohibition and Regulation) Act 1986, should be strictly enforced to prevent the employment of young children in this occupation. All bidi packets should be labeled with strong picture health warnings to inform smokers about the harmful effects of bidi smoking. Taxes on bidis should be increased to narrow the price difference between cigarettes and bidis. The current taxation system on bidis allows the industry to avoid paying taxes, as manufacturers producing less than 2 million bidis a year are exempt from excise duties.

To evade taxes, large factory owners show fragmented production and present the occupation as home-based units to maximize their profits. The bidi cess collected by the government should be used for welfare measures and other benefits for bidi workers. Rehabilitation measures must keep the aspirations of the community in mind while shifting them to sustainable, remunerative micro enterprises. Alternative occupations must take into account the lifestyles of bidi rollers, level of skills, needs and constraints. There are several successful self help groups who are working in home based enterprises have successfully turned into independent and profit-based entrepreneurs. Story and images by Sucheta Das
Price - GBP 300