Women work in a beedi factory near Nileshwaram, Kerala. Photo: Wikipedia

It has long been recognized that millions of Indians, mostly women, are trapped in vulnerable livelihoods producing a type of cigarette popular in South Asia and parts of the Middle East called the beedi (also known as bidi or biri). A recent study has looked into this problem in detail, and finds that although the Indian government has made some efforts to improve the lives of these workers, the sheer size of the challenge is daunting.

Dr Derek Yach, former executive director of the World Health Organization and now president of the Foundation for a Smoke Free World, wrote in a review of the new study: “As this report shows, bidi production is disproportionately carried out by women who often suffer from low wages, exploitative practices, and a plethora of occupational hazards.

“These women are arguably the most disadvantaged in the bidi value chain and serious work is needed to help women and their children secure a better future.”

Beedis are thin, hand-rolled cigarettes filled with shredded tobacco wrapped in leaves of the tendu (East Indian ebony) tree. Indian beedis are exported to as many as 122 countries and carry huge significance globally in the tobacco-control discussion.

The beedi industry employs 7 million workers, 85% or them women, in a predominantly unorganized sector comprising mostly home-based women from poor households. The beedi workers are vulnerable because of low pay, hazardous work environments, systemic exploitation, precarious employment, lack of social security and limited access to welfare schemes, according to the study.

However, those wishing to move to safer and more rewarding livelihoods meet many obstacles, such as low education levels, inadequate skill adaptability, low credit availability and lack of in-demand vocational training, the report finds.

The report titled “Knowledge Gap in Existing Research on India’s Women Beedi Rollers & Alternative Livelihood Options: A Systematic Review for Promoting Evidence-Informed Policy and Prioritizing Future Research,“ was published this month.

It notes that the Indian Ministry of Labor and Employment has initiated a skill development program in collaboration with the Ministry of Skill Development and Entrepreneurship and National Skill Development Corporation to provide alternative livelihoods to beedi workers and their dependents.

A total of 461 of the 3,620 beedi workers trained under the program had moved to alternative livelihoods by December 2018. And last year, a total of 2,223 beneficiaries were trained and 1,025 of them moved to other jobs.

However, these numbers are but a drop in the ocean. Of the approximately 7 million beedi rollers in the country, about 96% are home-based. Women constitute 84% of the home-based workers and 80% of the total (male and female) live in rural areas.

The report recommends that the provision of alternative livelihood should be guided in a local context (for example, availability of raw materials, demand for the product, and marketability) and women’s capacity to earn a decent living in a different industry.

Orientation and training programs could be organized to enhance the workers’ skill levels. Also needed are easier access to credit. Since alternative activities may require investment and involve a transition period, women escaping the beedi industry should be linked with banks or self-help financing groups through government programs.

The report suggests that government consider setting up of employment counseling centers to assess the skills of beedi rollers in alternative jobs. Such centers could also facilitate skill upgrading and generating business propositions.

Dr Bibek Debroy, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, wrote in a foreword note for this research report: “We need to understand more with further research on: (1) the reasons behind women (and children) being employed in the beedi industry – is it because they possess innate rolling skills (as the industry tends to think) or they can be paid lower wages without social security and subjected to hazardous work condition?”

Sachi Satapathy

Sachi Satapathy is an international development practitioner who has worked on large-scale projects. His interests are in public policy, poverty alleviation and public-private partnerships for development in middle-income and developing countries.

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