Purulia: Malika Mahato (42 ) from Jhalda block in Purulia has been rolling bidis in her house to make ends meet. Her husband, an agricultural labourer, seldom gets work in the arid landscapes of the district. Pouring her heart out In front of a mike at a conference of bidi workers, Malika describe the exploitation the workers go through with owners flouting the minimum wage agreement which stipulates Rs 268 for binding 1,000 bidis.
“We are paid Rs 70 for 700 bidis or Rs 80 for 800 bidis and Rs 120 for binding 1,000 bidis. If we try to bind more bidis then we run out of Kendu leaves and thread," she said. The arid landscapes and little hillocks in the district are home to many woman bidi workers. With no second occupation to fall back on, these bidi workers exploited with owners threatening to shift work orders to other places if a higher price is demanded.
While the state government has announced a minimum wage for them, the rules are flouted, said Debasish Roy, General Secretary of the All India Bidi Workers Federation. "In Tamil Nadu and Kerala, bidi workers get the announced minimum wage and the government sees to it so that the workers are paid their dues. But, in West Bengal, after announcing minimum wages, the government does not ensure whether the workers are getting their dues or not," he said.
Roy said the Trinamool Congress government in the state has a number of bidi factory owners or bidi aggregators as ministers, and hence seeking the minimum wage for bidi workers was proving to be a difficult task. Though the labour minister Becharam Manna has said that not paying minimum wages was an offence on the part of factory owners, this "lip service" has continued for years, he said.
Purulia has one of the highest density of bidi workers after Murshidabad district in the state with nearly 1.3 lakh bidi workers residing in this district. Interestingly, this part of Purulia district was witness to Maoist insurgency a few years ago who had even announced a price for the head of the most prominent bidi union leader in Purulia, Bhim Kumar. The frail looking 70-year-old Kumar told Newsclick how villagers saved his life on a couple of occasions during the insurgency and that the union' strength has been such that the democratic movement has benefited from the strength of bidi workers federation in the district.
Interestingly, bidi workers from the region have also had to deal with the myth of ghosts trying to close down the Begunkodor railway station after it was opened owing to pressure by the democratic movement. The 'ghost story' surfaced about 45 years ago after train drivers reported numerous run-overs but no bodies were found in the vicinity. According to Bhim Kumar, the railway employees were scared off when miscreants wore masks used by Chhau dancers. As a result, the railway station was closed and the next station of Kotshila was functional. It was only recently that bidi workers were able to dispel these fears and open the station for public use.
Former Communist Party of India (Marxist) MP, Basudeb Acharia, led two trainloads of villagers in the first train ride from Begunkodor, while Bhim Kumar and the bidi workers union led from the front in dispelling doubts from the minds of people, helped by experts from the Vigyan Manch. As a result, Begunkodor is not referred to as a ghost station anymore, courtesy the bidi workers federation .
Numerous issues plague bidi workers of the district. The only bidi hospital in the district has a single doctor but no pharmacist. When told that this correspondent hailed from Kolkata, the woman bidi workers in unison requested us to contact Nizam Palace labour commissionerate to ensure that their hospital functions properly. The workers are also working without provident fund and many do not even have identification cards.
The bidi workers of the district had closed the bidi distribution system on multiple occasions, following which the some factory owners attended the bipartite meet for wage revision and proposed increasing wages by a measly Rs 23. However, most of the bidi factory owners were not present in the meeting, and only a handful put forth the proposal. Hence, the workers' fight for their rights continues.