When two middle-aged women committed suicide by consuming wall paint powder, manufactured locally, after all beedi factories shut down in April, Geeta Ambivali, whose family has been involved in beedi rolling for three generations, was inspired to act.
She sent her daughter, Priyanka (18) to a local stitching workshop at Lodhi Gali, determined to put her into a new profession. “I see an end of the beedi industry with this new warning system on packages,” she said.
Like her, at least three other women who have been rolling beedis for several years made the hard switch. From a job they had grown comfortable in within the walls of their home, they are now stepping out to learn something new.
Priyanka has already learnt to stitch towels, uniforms and caps in the last few weeks. “I will earn Rs 2,000 per month by stitching,” she said. Her father’s death forced her to drop out of school in eighth class to aid her mother in beedi rolling. Together, they would earn Rs 2,400 every month to run the house.
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Her friend Deepal Gorandivale (17) is learning to stitch even as her mother and aunts continue the beedi rolling work. “At our age it is hard to learn a new skill. These young girls can still learn,” says Sharda Kanyalal (40), who has been rolling beedis for 25 years, earning Rs 150 every day for every 1,000 tendu leaves she rolls and ties with a thread after stuffing them with tobacco.
Solapur’s Gandhi Nagar, Lodhi Gali, Shastri Nagar and areas in the city’s southern extension are known to house over 50,000 beedi rollers, all women, and several thousand more who work without registration. With 400 to 500 major beedi factories in Solapur, these women work for multiple factories to expand their income.
Sangeeta Phatphatwali (38), was a beedi roller since childhood, learning the skill by watching her mother. Four months ago she started learning to sew. “I am now trying to convince other women to start stitching. Beedi rolling caused back pain and my thumb would get stiff,” she said.
But the change is slow and not all women wish to change their profession. Lingawe Sholapure (55) was asked to produce her daughter’s authorised registration of beedi rolling when the groom’s family came with a marriage proposal. “Men agree to marry if a girl has a registration. It is a matter of pride to roll beedis,” she said.
A 1,000 women staying in Gandhi Nagar agree with her. In the narrow lanes of this colony, all women in a family can be seen cutting tendu leaves, rolling beedis or tying threads even as their children mimic them in the one room space filled with the whiff of tobacco. For widow Bano Bashir Nadaf (30), who has two daughters, beedi rolling from 8 am to 9 pm earns her Rs 100 every day. She has been rolling beedis for 20 years. “I can’t leave my children at home and work out. This is the only skill that pays at home,” she said. While she wishes to earn more, she claims there are few alternatives.
For the few who dare to leave the trade, there are no employers. When beedi factories remained shut throughout April, Narsamma Sherle, was denied domestic work in the several households she approached because of her family’s decades old association with beedi rolling. Like her, Kaushalya Anil was turned away by towel factories.
For beedi rollers, mostly Muslims and migrants from Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka, the division of opinion on whether to continue this work or learn new skills remains even as beedi manufacturers debate over their next move after the Supreme Court’s decision to implement 85 per cent warning on packets.
Dhikusa Beedi owner Sunil Kshatriya said, “We will keep protesting against the 85 per cent warning as there will be no space to display our brand’s name. The fight for this has not ended.”
Meanwhile, local MLA Praniti Shinde is now setting up more sewing machines to provide an alternate skill source for these women. Currently, she has set up ten centres in various areas of Solapur.