Women, kids drive Assam's illegal beedi industry for a pittance

Guwahati: The district of Dhubri, located in lower Assam, is listed as India’s most flood-affected district. Every year, the Gangadhar river and the Brahmaputra river cause land erosion, loss of livestock and even human fatality, and leave thousands of people in despair. For locals who often rebuild their lives every year, there is little in the way of employment, and for several locals, the only viable option is to take up rolling beedis: hand-rolled cigarettes made of unprocessed tobacco wrapped in leaves.

One of the reasons why locals, especially women and children, take up this occupation is because they can do this without going out of the house. In Dhubri’s villages, most men have moved out to work as daily labourers: some also reside outside the state working as security guards, drivers and construction workers.

The sight of women and children sitting together in open courtyards from morning till evening is common in villages of Gauripur- a semi-urban town, and the Sahebganj area of Golakganj Revenue circle, among others.

The target is to roll at least 1000 beedis to earn the daily wage of Rs 140-Rs 145. A local agent, popularly known as ‘Mahajan’, supplies them with raw materials: blended tobaccos and leaves. These beedis are distributed in the local markets of Dhubri and adjoining districts of South and North Salmara.

Anuwara Khatun, 26, has been rolling beedis since she was 13 years old. Talking to EastMojo, she says, “I have been rolling beedis for the past 13-14 years. I have a son who is 10 years old. Sometimes I roll 1,000 beedis per day and sometimes 1200. I get Rs 143 for rolling 1,000 beedis.” 

The low rate exists even though the minimum wage for Beedi workers is fixed at Rs 450 by the Labour and Employment Department, Assam.

All the women rolling beedis in Gauripur have the same story to share: abject poverty led by displacement due to erosion and married before the legal age.

Apart from women, children as young as 11 can be seen rolling tobacco. The lighter the hands, the swifter they can roll beedis. So children are as efficient as their mothers in the job, if not more, say the locals. 

As per the latest data of the National Crime Records Bureau (NCRB), Assam stands at 13th position in the number of child labourers (2.8 Lakhs) in the country.

At present, Dhubri has eight registered Beedi making industries across the district. But the number of unregistered factories is much higher, stated the Lower Assam Beedi Labours’ Association.

Anbamuthan MP, Deputy Commissioner of Dhubri district, while talking to EastMojo, said, “The labour officer and the child protection officer make regular visits to those places wherever there is a reporting of child labour. They do frequent drives in this, but yes, it is malice, and we are taking necessary steps to curb it.”

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