Umme Kusum, seven years old, stays with her mother, Aliara Bibi, in a small village in Murshidabad district of West Bengal. While other children are in school, however, Umme Kusum is learning the art of rolling beedis, hand-rolled cigarettes of tobacco flake wrapped in tendu leaves. 

Aliara has two other teenage daughters, Zainab and Beauti. She makes sure that her three daughters practice the art of rolling beedis at least three hours every day without giving a miss. Zainab and Beauti go to school only when there are not too many orders for the beedis. Umme is yet to start her schooling.

Aliara who is in her early 40s, says, that she understands the importance of education for her children, but ultimately it is their skill in beedi rolling that would decide a groom for them, “Who doesn’t want their children to get educated?,” she raises a strong pitch only to soften down within a few seconds, “But for a poor woman like me, education is not the priority for my daughters. They assist in running the family by tying the beedis. Most important, they have a better chance of getting a good match if they become expert in the work,” she says, while scolding Zainab for being slow in the work.

Aliara, however, is not alone who wants her daughters to gain mastery over the art, but thousands of women in Murshidabad teach their daughters the art of beedi rolling from a very tender age. After all, their future too much extent depends upon the speed in rolling the leaves. 

Murshidabad with a population of over seven million (Census 2011) is a hub of beedi making industry in the country with over 75 percent of the population connected with the trade. Women are seen rolling beedis in almost every household in the district with Jangipur sub-division housing majority of beedi workers and factories. 

Rokiya Khatun, 25, who stays at Jagtai village of Suti-II block of the district, says that she is concerned about her eight-year-old daughter, Fahmida Farheen, who spends more time playing with the kids of her age than to learn the method of rolling beedi, “She has to learn from a tender age. The work of rolling the leaf is not easy. It takes years to gain expertise over it. She would become an earning member of the family as soon as she starts tying the beedi perfectly,” says, Rokiya, whose husband works as a labourer in Kerala.

Most of the men folk in the district work as labourers in other parts of the country, while the women have the responsibility of running the households. 

“The groom’s family while tying the knot prefers a girl who is expert in beedi rolling because men do not contribute much to the family’s income as they move to other states for jobs and come occasionally during festivals. They squander their earnings in alcohol and gambling while women are the bread winners of the family who double up the responsibility of raising their children,” says Anita Das, a social worker adding the child marriages are common among them. 
 She, however, points out a very interesting feature prevalent in their society: Unlike in most parts of the country, women are not cursed for giving birth to a girl child, but the female child is welcomed here.

“The woman is not treated indifferently by her in-laws for having a girl child. People prefer daughters because they consider them as an additional source of income for the family. The girls start contributing to the family’s income within a year or two. A man with more daughters considers himself lucky as it translates to more earning members of the family. There are also demands of dowry among them but the groom’s family agrees to settle for less, if the girl is an expert beedi maker,” says Anita who has stayed with the workers for more than a decade. 

This could then be one of the reasons for the district having higher girl child ratio than other parts of the state. According to census 2011, West Bengal had 956 girls (O-6 years) on every 1000 boys, while in Mursidabad the child sex ratio was 968 girls on the same number of boys.

Rohima Bibi, a forty-year-old widow says that her daughter got a good match only because she was trained her well for the job, “She could easily tie a thousand beedis in one day which is considered a good speed by the prospective bride. The groom’s family first rejected my daughter because we were poor, but soon agreed to marry after coming to know that she has an expertise in rolling beedis,” she recollects with a sense of pride visible on her face.

Though the industry is flourishing in the district, the payment to the beedi workers remains quite meager. On an average, a worker is paid between Rs.124-126 on every thousand beedis rolled. They are also exploited by the middlemen who take advantage of their illiteracy. 

Health is a major concern of the workers as most of them develop various ailments during the course of time, “We suffer from back pain and spondylitis because of sitting at a stretch for several hours. We suffer from headache, neck ache, swelling of the lower limbs and asthma because of the constant exposure to tobacco. “rued Jahana Khatun, a beedi worker for the last twenty years. 

Worse, children start smoking beedis from a very young age and become vulnerable to various diseases. 
Of late, the workers have been severely hit by demonetization. The currency crisis after the announcement made by the Prime Minister Mr Narendra Modi on November 8, last year had halted production in several beedi factories in in Murshidabad, affecting the livelihood of over 1 lakh people.

Beedi factory owners said production had stopped because of two reasons. First, beedi dealers were not being able to collect stocks because of lack currency notes. Second, beedi manufacturers were not in a position to pay weekly wages to the labourers. Such payments are made every Friday. 

The minister of state for labour, Zakir Hossain, who owns Shiv Bidi Manufacturing Pvt Ltd in Aurangabad, had warned of an increase in “anti-social activities” if the workers lose their livelihood. “Murshidabad is known for its beedi industry. The demonetisation drive has created serious problems for the industry. I have kept my factory running but I don’t know what I will do in the next few days.” He estimated that around 15 lakh people were involved in the beedi industry in the district. Bomb-making and manufacturing of pipe guns are common in the district.

Though the work has resumed in the New Year, it would take time for the situation to turn normal.  

As wispy clouds float across the crimson sky, a thought crosses the mind that the livelihood of several thousands of people hinges on a small beedi which the rich dismiss as a ‘poor man’s cigarette’.