She is unwell and famished. Her tender, little fingers are tired. Her eyes communicate nothing but pain. But the 12-year-old, underweight Nafisa Khatun of Sahajadpur village near Kolkata cannot stop her work―rolling bidis.
She has been working for the past eight hours. Three more hours to go for her 'shift' to end. Even as I click her photographs, she keeps rolling bidis like a robot. I ask her to stop and look at me for a moment. “I have rolled 700 bidis; 300 more to go,” she whimpers. “If not, I will not get anything to eat at home.”
There are more than two lakh child bidi labourers in West Bengal. Every day, they work 10 to 15 hours and roll about 1,000 bidis for a daily wage of Rs70.
Of the total consumption of tobacco in India, 53 per cent is in the form of bidis. And Murshidabad is one of the largest bidi manufacturing districts in the country, with an annual turnover of about Rs500 crore. There are about six lakh bidi labourers working for registered and unregistered bidi factories here.
As I visit a kachcha house at Tarapur colony in Dhulian town, 10-year-old Mahima is fast asleep on the mud floor. “She is tired after work,” says a villager, who rues that the girl is not clothed properly. “Even in winter you will find many children wearing just a piece of clothing.”
In a nearby hut, Rupshika, 17, is busy rolling bidis. As I ask her why she looks uneasy, she wipes her face and tells me: “I have been rolling bidis for eight years. My father was a bidi worker, and tuberculosis killed him. Now, I run the family. If I do not roll 1,500 bidis a day, I won't be able to feed the family. My hands swelled up last night, but I have work. I have no choice. Else, we will have to beg.”
It seems almost every house in Murshidabad has a child bidi labourer. I, however, am shocked to find a girl as young as four learning to roll bidis. “It is better that she learns how to roll bidis instead of going to school or wasting time playing with friends,” comments a villager. “If she does not become a skilled worker, who will marry her? How will she survive?”
After entering the houses here, I experience nausea and headache. “It is the effect of tobacco,” he says. “If you stand here for an hour, you won't be able to sleep tonight.”
Bidi rollers are constantly exposed to tobacco dust and hazardous chemicals. And, tuberculosis, asthma, anaemia, giddiness, eye infections and gynaecological problems are common here.
In Sahajadpur, Lipi, 15, has been suffering from menstrual issues. She has been rolling bidis 12 hours a day for the past eight years. She collapsed the day before I visit her house, but work has to go on.
“If she does not work, how will we repay the loan taken from the local moneylender?” asks her mother. “Daughters are a blessing for bidi workers like us. At the age of seven, we give them food and basic education with their own earning. By the age of 20, we marry them off, again, using their money. In our community, no one would marry a girl who does not know bidi rolling.”
Most of the children here do not go to school after Class 10. With the entry into the bidi industry, they become like zombies, disconnected from life. Ask them about a film or who the president of India is, and they give you a blank stare.
“I was good at studies,” says Parvin, 15. “But after spending many nights on an empty stomach, I realised that my real education was how to roll bidis. If the job goes, I will burn out like a bidi.”
Though I have taken enough pictures, I pretend as if I am clicking and walk away. I do not want her to see my moist eyes.