No Concern for Job and Survival of Beedi Workers

J S Majumdar

SINCE the middle of February, 2016, more than one crore beedi workers, mainly in the rural areas, have lost their meagre daily earnings due to shut down by beedi manufacturers in protest against the health ministry’s notification increasing the size of pictorial health warning on tobacco containing products including beedis. This is taking place at a time when vast rural areas in different states are reeling under draught and the rural people are deprived of their earnings from agriculture and the failure of MNREGA to provide alternative jobs in rural areas.

Beedi is an agro-forest based labour-intensive product employing huge number of economically and socially marginalised sections, mostly in the rural areas. It employs about 20 lakh adivasi and traditional forest dwellers who collect tendu leaves from forests. They have traditional rights to this minor forest produce under the Forest Rights Act. Besides a few exceptions, they are not organised in trade unions. Now, this beedi industry bandh has seriously affected the livelihood of this most marginalised section of the workers who mainly belong to economically deprived and socially marginalised Muslim minorities, Dalits, OBCs sections and women in rural areas across India.

Questions are raised about the actual number of beedi rollers. The 1999-2000 annual report of the labour ministry estimated total number of beedi rollers to be 45 lakhs. According to trade unions, as recorded in ILO note, the number would be 70-80 lakhs. The All India Beedi Industry Federation, in its public press notification on April 9, recorded beedi rollers’ number to be 80 lakhs. The government’s record appears to be faulty as 20-25 per cent of even branded beedi rollers do not yet possess health cards and about 40-50 per cent of them do not have EPF card. Branded beedis controls about 65 per cent of the market while unbranded beedis have 35 per cent market share. There is neither any health card nor EPF card for unbranded beedi rollers.

In addition, there are about five lakh packers in 300 organised sector beedi companies and in thousands of small beedi manufacturing units. There is also a network of huge number of contractors and subcontractors distributing materials and collecting rolled beedis. A report in The Hindu on April 7, said that over two lakh beedi workers in Karimnagar district of Telangana alone were rendered unemployed due to the closing down of units following protests against the health ministry’s directive to include 85 per cent pictorial warning on beedi packets.

The beedi industry employs a large number of workers, next only to agricultural workers and construction workers. There are Beedi and Cigar Workers (Conditions of Employment) Act; Beedi Workers Welfare Cess Act and Beedi Workers Welfare Fund Act. All of these are seriously affected due to beedi industry bandh and the Modi government is not bothered.

Raising the issue during Zero Hour in Rajya Sabha on February 26, MP and CITU general secretary Tapan Sen said that the closure of beedi manufacturing since the middle of February has affected one crore of piece-rated workers. They are mostly poor and belong to socially backward Dalit and minority sections. So, it is a human concern along with the government’s health concern. He urged upon the “government to intervene immediately, exercise power, and call the factory owners, and ask them to open the beedi industry in order to save one crore beedi workers along with five crore of their families and their livelihood.”
Cutting across political affiliation, Salim Ansari of BSP (UP), Vijila Sathyananth of AIADMK (Tamilnadu), T K Rangarajan of CPI(M) (Tamilnadu) and former union labour minister Oscar Fernandes of Congress (Karnataka) associated themselves with Tapan Sen’s statement.

The All India Beedi Workers Federation has strongly opposed the ‘Production Bandh’ by beedi manufactures and employers which resulted into loss of wages to the one crore beedi workers and demanded of the government take the necessary action against ‘Bandh’ and arrange compensation to the workers affected by it.

The Union Ministry of Health and Family Welfare under the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labeling) Amendment Rules issued notification vide G.S.R-727 dated 15 October, 2014 on health warnings display area increasing from existing 40% on one side to 85% (60% pictorial and 25% textual) on both side of the package.

This notification was to come into effect from 1 April, 2015. However, in view of the matter coming under the scrutiny of the Committee on Subordinate Legislation of Lok Sabha, a corrigendum was issued on 26 March, 2015 suspending the date of implementation. Despite the matter still remaining with the parliamentary committee, on 24 September 2015, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare again issued notice stating that the new rule on increased health warning would come into effect from 1 April, 2016.

The parliamentary committee placed its report in Lok Sabha on 15 March, 2016 terming the health ministry’s proposed 85% pictorial warnings as "too harsh" and recommended 50% on both sides. The report recommended a "practical" approach which will be "feasible" to follow and which would also ensure that a large number of people in the trade will be saved from being rendered unemployed.

All India Beedi Industry Federation in its press notification for public on 9 April stated that since beedi package is conical shape, as such there is no ‘both sides’, and having insufficient space it will not be practical and possible to print as per health ministry’s notification and, therefore, they had to stop production being unable to comply with the rules.

All India Beedi Workers Federation General Secretary Md. Nizamuddin on 6 April wrote to the union health minister stating that 85% health warning display created stir amongst the beedi employers with frequent suspension of production last year and already three times this year rendering no work and no wages to the millions of Beedi workers, who are very poor and marginalized; that the Parliamentary committee recommended pictorial warning in 50% of the pack “which we feel is justified at this juncture and request you to issue your necessary order to save the millions of workers all over the country.”

In the meantime, Rajasthan high court in an order on a PIL directed the union health ministry to take steps for implementation of its notification on 85% from April 1, 2016. The health ministry is insisting on 85% on both side of the package and submitted an affidavit in the Rajasthan high court that it would be implemented from April 1, 2016.

The issue is being posed as if simply increasing the pictorial heath warning on tobacco products would reduce its use. There is no scientific data on this as the Parliamentary committee has found out. On the contrary, such steps are immediately affecting livelihood of more than a crore of most down-trodden section of workers.

The question is as to why the government failed to intervene and compel the beedi manufacturers and employers to withdraw the closure / bandh / lockout? Why Government failed to compensate the workers who lost their daily meagre earnings? Why the Government delayed implementation of its notification by one year considering the issue being with the Parliamentary committee, and then suddenly, without waiting for Parliamentary committee report, which is now before the Lok Sabha, went ahead to implement by executive order, bypassing Parliament? (END)

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