Beedi Labourers – Indian Cigarettes


India’s Beedi Labourers
Text & Photography ©Nayan Sthankiya

Beedi-rolling is a cottage industry in India and is typically done by women in their homes but also in group collectives throughout India. India’s beedi economy provides employment for 40 million men and boys who collect tendu leaves in forests. Another 60 million people, mostly women and children, are busy rolling beedis at home and as such says Margaret Antony, independent researcher on the tobacco industry: ”Many children attend school and assist in beedi-making at other times and ‘bonded child labor’ is virtually non-existent.”

The process of rolling a beedi is similar to that of a handmade cigarette. Beedis vary accordingly by their size. Beedi tobacco consists of three different tobaccos; each has its own characteristic.The tobacco is brought from different states and each has its own blend. For example, for a strong tobacco flavor, tobacco from the state of Gujarat is preferred. For a more mellow flavour tobacco from Nipani (karnataka)is suitable, and to help the beedies retain the fire for longer CHOOR from Mysore is used. Once the beedies are rolled they are kept in a specially designed oven to ensure good flavour and to remove any moisture.

Due to the relatively low cost of beedies (pronounced beedees) compared to regular cigarettes, they have long been popular among the poor in Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Cambodia and India. Some 850 billion are smoked every year in India alone. Beedies are available in many flavors, vanilla, strawberry, chocolate, and mango. Their availability in Indian food markets is usually under the authorities radar, due to the markets ethnic consumer base that focus on food, drink, and provisions.

A 1999 survey by San Francisco’s Booker T. Washington Community Service Centre reported that 58% of high school students in San Francisco had tried Beedies, and 31% smoked them at least once a month. Seventy percent of packs purchased contained no warning labels, and about 40% did not contain tax-paid stamps, contributing to their low cost. Many students who tried beedi believe it to be less harmful than a regular cigarette due to the ease of inhalation and absence of warning labels.

The humble beedi not only stands in the way of tobacco transnational corporations (TNCs) waiting to take advantage of liberalization and invest heavily in the vast Indian market, but is burning holes in already-dwindling Western markets, including the United States. Last September, the Wall Street Journal reported: ”Smoking beedis has become a hot fad among young American hipsters. Exports to the US of the cheap, fruit-flavoured cigarettes have doubled in the past year.”

The TNCs have used the flawed argument of forced child labor to impose a ban on Indian beedies into the U.S. market to bolster there bottom line while aggressively pursuing the opening of the Indian market to their products.

Shiva, a leading Indian activist said if the United States were serious about protecting children it would not have a Cigarette Advertising and Promotion Code which applied only in that country rather than universally. The hypocrisy was deepened, she said, when the discriminatory codes were applied on the pretext of not wanting to impose US values on other societies.

Shiva said it was worth noting that one of the biggest beedi manufacturers is actually a cooperative, Kerala Dinesh Beedi Worker’s Cooperative Society, which represents one of the world’s largest and most successful experiments in industrial democracy. ”On the other hand, many of today’s major US tobacco giants established themselves on slave labor and have no business preaching labor rights,” Shiva said.