Editor's note: Davinder Kumar is an award-winning development journalist who works for children’s rights organization Plan International.
Five-year-old Aliya thinks it is a game she must master quickly to be a winner. From the time she wakes up, until she goes to bed, Aliya watches her mother and all the girls and women in her neighborhood consumed in a frantic race: Making beedis - traditional hand-rolled Indian cigarettes.
To create each beedi, the maker painstakingly places tobacco inside a dried leaf sourced from a local ebony tree; tightly rolls and secures it with a thread; and then closes the tips using a sharp knife.
For anything between 10 and 14 hours, regardless of how long it takes, Aliya’s mother and others must all roll at least 1,000 beedis to earn a paltry sum of less than $2 a day, paid by the middleman.
The beedi manufacturers, however, make billions of dollars.
The cigarettes are taken to the warehouses of large manufacturers, where they are packaged before being sold in the market for a much higher price.
Beedis are so popular that they make for nearly half of India’s entire tobacco market. but, behind the country’s unorganized domestic tobacco sector lie invisible millions trapped in modern day economic slavery.
Assembly line of workers
In Aliya’s town of Kadiri in Andhra Pradesh alone, hundreds of families have for generations relied on beedi rolling as their only means of survival.
The labyrinthine, congested lanes of Kadiri slums are home to an assembly line of humans functioning like robots: Young girls and women alike can be seen rolling cigarettes in groups out in the open. Some sway, some rock back and forth appearing entranced, while others have developed odd muscular motions as they push their work speed to the edge of human limits.
For most, if they do not roll enough beedis every day there simply will not be food on the table.
“The pressure to keep up with the speed and meet the target is so intense that many skip their meals and even avoid drinking water so they do not need to go to the toilet,” says Shanu, a community volunteer.
Almost all beedi workers in Kadiri, like the other beedi manufacturing pockets in India, are female and a large of number of them young girls.
Aliya has already started her lessons early and is practising rolling beedis using cuttings of plain paper. “I want to roll beedis and give money to my mother,” she says.
A study released nearly three years ago estimated a scandalous number of over 1.7 million children are working in India's beedi rolling industry. Children are knowingly engaged by manufacturers due to belief that children’s nimble fingers are more adept at rolling cigarettes.
Under Indian law, beedi rolling is defined as hazardous work, but a loophole means children who help their parents in their work fall outside the legal framework.
“Formally, it is the women who take on the orders from the contractors,” says Anita Kumar of Plan India. “However, behind the scenes, the pressures these women face in terms of delivering on huge volumes, invariably children, mainly girls, get pulled into this to support their families in beedi rolling.”
As part of its global “Because I am a Girl” campaign, children’s rights organization Plan International has started a program focused on girl child labor in Andhra Pradesh, including girls involved in beedi making. The project will collectively impact 1,500 girls over 3 years. Children trapped in beedi work will need a rescue effort on a much larger scale.
“We are aiming to create a model by working with communities and the local government structures ensuring that children are prevented from falling into this cycle of labor,” says Kumar.
From unhealthy living conditions to exploitative wages, slave-like working conditions and severe health consequences - the situation of beedi workers involves violation of their fundamental rights and freedoms on many levels. The majority of girls are pulled out of education by the time they complete primary school to support their families’ income.
The youngest of four siblings, 11-year-old Salma dropped out of school last year when she had completed grade 4.
“I wanted to continue going to school but we are very poor and have been struggling to pay the rent,” she says as she struggles to draw breath.
Trapped in economic slavery
Salma is suffering from jaundice and is so frail she can barely sit up straight. Yet, she is tasked with rolling up to 1,500 beedis a day to support her family. Squatting on the floor, hunched, she rolls cigarettes for over 12 hours every day and still earns just over two dollars.
In addition to jaundice, Salma has also developed a ringworm infection on her wrist, common in the area due to poor hygiene and sanitation. She is in dire need of medical attention but visiting local hospital means a day off work due to long queues and a day’s wages to pay for transport - her parents cannot afford either.
The health impact on beedi workers is visible on all age groups. Tuberculosis, asthma, body pain and postural problems related with hips and joints are most common.
Continuous beedi rolling leads to absorption of high doses of nicotine directly through skin. The skin on the children's fingertips begins to thin progressively, and by the time they reach their 40s they cannot roll cigarettes any more.
Mahboobjaan, a mother of three girls, is in her mid-30s and is already losing sensation in her hands. ”My hands often swell up. I don’t know what I will do if I can’t roll beedi anymore,” she says.
The worst thing for beedi workers is the feeling that there is no protection, no welfare, no state support. They vote but have no power or effective representation. For all development indicators they remain at the bottom of the ladder all their lives.
And among them, the girls suffer the most. Throughout their life cycle their basic rights are violated; as children, as child brides, as young mothers, they continue to fight for survival with extreme labour and economic slavery.
In summer as the temperatures reach 45 degrees Celsius, the streets of Kadiri are engulfed in a stifling cloud of tobacco dust. Infants play among heaps of tobacco leaves.
Covered in a pool of sweat, young girls roll beedis with their eyes transfixed on their tobacco tray. Older women, who can no longer roll beedis themselves, help by trimming the ebony leaves. The work continues till late in the night just to secure the next day’s meal and to keep a roof above the workers’ heads.
The next morning, and for almost every morning for the rest of their lives, it is exactly the same story: The breathless race to 1,000 starts all over again with a single beedi.
[The children's names have been changed].
Editor's note: Plan International wants to provide vocational training to help girls and young women trapped in the beedi-making industry to find better paid jobs. To learn more about the "Because I am a Girl" campaign, or to help by making a donation to support the group's work, or by sponsoring a child, visit Plan International's website.