(Note: This is Onmanorama's special project that tracks the impact of lockdown on people from different strata of Kerala society. Read all the nine stories here.)
Vishwambharan sits on a chair holding a shallow basket made of reed. He quickly picks up beedi leaves, fills them with tobacco, taps them to make tobacco distribution even, rolls them and ties them with cotton thread.
Vishawabharan is an experienced beedi roller in Cheruvathur in Kerala’s Kasaragod district. He has been working for Mangaluru-based Bharath Beedi for the past 30 years. Before the onset of pandemic, he used to roll 1,000 beedis a day and earned Rs 250 (Rs 1,500 in a six-day week). But the COVID-19 pandemic and the resultant economic slowdown gave him many sleepless nights. When the nation went into lockdown for 68 days in four phases from March 24 to May 31 in 2020, Vishwambharan did not get any work. After the lockdown was lifted, he sat idle for one more month because his employer could not supply raw materials. When he eventually resumed work in June, the employers rationed the material supply. Since then he has been getting materials for just 2,000 beedis (as against 6,000 beedis during the pre-COVID period). Thus his monthly earnings dipped from Rs 6,000 to just Rs 2,000.
Vishwambharan says his income is not enough to buy medicines for his heart ailment. “We are going through a difficult phase. Beedi manufacturing is a dying industry. I don’t know how long we can survive,” he said.
Viswambharan represents more than 35,000 beedi workers in Kerala, whose lives have been severely affected by the pandemic and lockdown. What saved them during the tough time was the free food supply by the government. “Families of 1,500 beedi workers in our locality survived because of the food supply,” he said.
Thousands of families in the north Kerala districts of Kozhikode, Kannur and Kasaragod rely on beedi rolling for a living.
Kannur is known as the hub of beedi industry because it is home to the headquarters of Kerala Dinesh Beedi (KDB), the largest beedi workers’ co-operative society under the state government’s department of industries and commerce. Besides, private beedi manufacturers in Karnataka and Kerala too employ thousands of beedi workers in the district.
KDB was formed after 12,000 workers were booted out from the services of the Mangaluru-based Ganesh Beedi in 1968. The Kerala government responded to the massive layoffs by supporting the unemployed workers to form a beedi workers’ cooperative based in Kannur. It began with 3,000 workers. The number rose to 42,000 when the industry peaked between the 1970s and 80s. The industry’s decline began after the 1990s with the governments and the World Health Organisation intensifying the anti-tobacco campaign. Around 15,000 employees opted for voluntary retirement. Now, only 4,500 workers – mostly women – work in the beedi sector. Kerala Dinesh has diversified its operations and it has presence in an array of sectors, such as food processing and manufacturing, umbrella making, information technology and apparel manufacturing. The decline notwithstanding, Kerala Dinesh Beedi continues to be the highest-paying employer in the beedi market. The company pays Rs 336 for 1,000 beedis.
According to K Prabhakaran, secretary of the Kerala Dinesh Beedi and a former deputy director of the State Industries and Commerce Department, labourers lost 3 lakh working days and Rs 10 crore in wages because of the lockdown. Many workers had contracted the virus and they lost working days during their quarantine period. “Workers lost 2 lakh working days and Rs 6.7 crore in wages because of such reasons. Beedi industry is on the verge of death. COVID-19 and the lockdown have made its condition worse. We are giving it ‘palliative’ care,” Prabhakaran said.
That is why workers like Vishwambharan, who is mentioned in the beginning of this story, say they don’t harbour any hopes of the revival of the industry. “I don’t have any hopes left for its revival. The closure of beedi manufacturing units is imminent. I am worried about the workers who will lose their jobs,” Vishwambharan said.