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Sundarban’s Women Can Barely Survive On Beedi-Making Wages

Fatema’s mother tied the string around a beedi, showing me the skill. ‘If you take 1 kg of leaves, you have to produce 3000 beedis. Otherwise, there would be a wage-cut.’

Azaan fades with the pervading light, slowly putting the day into the same perspective. The wires had known how to reclaim their spikes after years of cutting through the geography of Old India.

Saline water knows the serpentine canals, it would have to flood in an invigorating spree. The people of the Sundarbans know they would have to be the shorebirds that build and rebuild.

In the mangrove-laden Sundarbans, women would answer to the rituals of tidying up the front threshold and the back corridors, as the open lanes suck up the fine-layered mist. Almost every woman has a thin oval-shaped bamboo-holder on their lap. In the bamboo-holder, there are strings, crushed nicotine, leaves, and a pair of scissors.

The Hindu and Muslim Bengalis inhabit the boundary islands along the India-Bangladesh border, scarred by the river Ichamati; a river of its own will. Countrymen of both sides can row boats to the mid-river, up to the invisible line of their country-shares.

The Border Security Force can shoot anyone attempting an illegal crossover

Sundarban's Women Can Barely Survive On Beedi-Making Wages

The fingers judder to the rhythm of familiarity. The outworn blackish fingers of the women rolling beedis and tying them up. Most families demand 4 to 5 bellies, and the primary source of income remains beedi-making.

About 71% of beedi workers in India are women, according to a recent report. There are 49.82 lakh beedi workers in India, of whom 18.29 lakh are from West Bengal.

Fatema’s mother is now counting 24 years, with two kids and a little money to survive on. ‘There is nothing else to do. We earn Rs. 200 for rolling 1000 beedis. In a week, I can earn Rs. 500.’

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Fatema’s mother tied the string around a beedi, showing me the skill. ‘If you take 1 kg of leaves, you have to produce 3000 beedis. Otherwise, there would be a wage-cut.’

Fatema’s grandmother learned beedi-making as a child from her mother, and the process percolated through the identical layers of generations. Even with her stooping gait, she does her bit to add a tiny amount to her daughter’s household, even if it’s Rs. 300 a week. Grandfather still has to pull a van.

Her father? Almost an invalid with broken bones.

What role do the men play in the household income?

They are migrant labourers. The void pushes most men to migrate to Tamil Nadu or Kolkata, chasing the heavy chain of labour work. For three to six months, they work in what the women make out to be ’foreign lands’.

Those who remain in the Sundarbans cling to any opportunity!

In the immediate border areas, brick factories occupy their days with a daily wage of Rs. 600. But the days are turbulent, and often depleted with local men ruminating on the scarcity of opportunities by the doorsteps.

Some men are invested in masonry, fishing, or cutting coconuts from trees. The more well-to-do have lands to thrive on.

Another common thread is disease or fate, adding an invalid male to an already-grappling household. Once a hard-labourer, now decayed and physically worn-out.

The potential gaps in their ‘way-forward’

In Muslim-dominant villages like Bena or Jorabot-tola, the trend of marrying multiple times continues to bear the social brunt. With no sexual awareness and financial settlement, it’s more like a child-rearing bank.

Many local women purportedly conveyed that the Bangladeshi men would cross the border with the promise of building a family, extricating themselves at the edge of a newborn.

Before their late 20s, the women are left with 5–6 kids from 3 to 4 husbands.

How do they sustain themselves?

livelihood in sundarbans

Of course, through beedi-making.

Even if they cultivate a new skill, let’s say, in garment or bag making, how would they market the products in the remote Sundarbans, without migration?

Sandhya Das, a local tribal woman who migrated to Tamil Nadu with her husband, was able to create quite a compensating living structure for themselves, until all the money trickled down with her mother-in-law’s disease back in the village. Now she has circled back to poverty.

It’s a systematic problem. Two earning heads; a woman making beedi, and a man providing from Tamil Nadu. The cumulative money is sustained, not saved. With no savings, a single medical blow would put the domestic economic stream on hold.

It’s a trapped problem

As the tradition dictates, Masum’s mother got married at 15. Now she has chosen another 15-year-old girl to be her 28-year-old son’s wife. ‘I didn’t think they would give her to me, but they did. I just wanted a little girl’, Masum’s mother was giddy. Covering her head in red, the shy girl now rolls beedi and milks a baby.

To topple it all, the natural distress has dwindled the islands.

Reduced freshwater supply and the blows of biblical floods. The Sundarban forest lies in the vast delta on the Bay of Bengal formed by the confluence of River Hooghly, Padma (both are distributaries of the Ganges), Brahmaputra, and Meghan across southern Bangladesh.

The interconnected network of waterways is canals to the deep of the mangrove-forest. This is a region of an amalgam; the freshwater of the rivers originating from the Ganges mingles with the saline water of the Bay of Bengal.

How the floods affect their livelihoods

Sundarban's Women Can Barely Survive On Beedi-Making Wages

‘We live on the lowlands. When we have floods, we are left with no source of income. Beedi becomes everything. There is no other way.’

The old man in white kurta pointed at his paper-house, ‘Everything was flooded during Amphan, we had to swim to the roads. With no food, we were forced to find a place on the streets for two months, waiting for the water level to decline.’

His wife joined in. ‘It was raining for days, and in a moment, the banks broke in the darkness of the night! My daughter shouted at me, “Run! We have to run to the roads!” Should we take pillows, food, or the children? The water rose to the neck.’

Amphan was a cyclonic tropical storm that devastated Eastern India, especially West Bengal and Odisha, and some parts of Bangladesh in 2020.

With the precarious natural impulses, people would rather rely on a pre-known vulnerable occupation than a new time-consuming initiative.

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The article was first published here.

Image source: The Telegraph India, edited on CanvaPro

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About the Author


Ipsita is a travel writer and a solo female traveller, on the road for 2+ years. She believes in slow and sustainable travelling that imbibes local traditions with minimal carbon footprints. She is an avid read more...

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