Nandlal Kori, 56, and his 50-year-old wife Dali compare the time when rolling 1,000 beedis would bring them only Rs 1.20 against the present Rs 60, how they could still save something back then but nothing now, and how rich the owner of the brand for which they toil has become.
Many in Sagar district depend on rolling beedis, though they are less dependent in Sagar town. Even in the rural areas, the men roll beedis only when they cannot find other work that would have paid more. The payment for rolling 1,000 beedis, which takes hours, ranges from Rs 50 to Rs 60 depending on the quality of tendu leaves. Only women make beedis in harvest time outside the town, like in Kasai Mandi, a Muslim neighbourhood in Rahatgarh town, about 35 km from Sagar.
As they roll beedis in their house in Sagar town, Nandlal asks, “Tell me what’s wrong with this one.” He tosses it away and answers himself, “The leaf is reddish and the sorter will reject it.’’ Rejected beedis are sold loose and cheap. This is part of rollers’ lives but they put up with it because women get to work from home and earn a little extra for the family.
“The country has become independent but we are still slaves,” says Ishtiyar, who packed beedis all his life until he retired recently. He, too, argues against harmful effects of beedis. “How can it cause cancer when everything used is natural, unlike chemicals in a cigarette?”
The sattedar is the link between the owner and the roller. He collects and delivers the rolled beedis to factories where they are sorted and labelled in stuffy rooms. Workers wonder why the sorters and packers are paid more than they are.
“It’s hard work. I have to finish cooking and daily chores before finding time to roll beedis,’’ says Zenum, a resident of Beedi Colony, a large settlement in Sagar. Today, however, few men depend on the industry. “Earlier, you could see many beedi-laden trucks leaving Sagar simultaneously, but no longer,” says Mohammed Shabbir, whose father Mohammed Rafiq was a sattedar known as Netaji because of his trade union activities.
A central government hospital for workers came up near the settlement more than a decade ago but has fewer patients. Kirit Prasad Ahirwar, a guard at the hospital entrance, supplements his income by rolling beedis in his spare time; he has plenty of it.