Over the last year, Kolkata-based photojournalist Sucheta Das travelled to the Murshidabad and Hasnabad districts of West Bengal diligently between news assignments. Das was drawn to the alarming statistics of physical disabilities and chronic health problems among children in the area. The reason: their involvement in, and proximity to, the beedi-making industry. The production of beedis, or hand-rolled leaf cigars, is a major cottage industry, and it is one in which the sharp eyesight and nimble fingers of young children are valuable assets.
Das’ photo project culminated in a photo essay titled The Lost Childhood, which she put together with the help of a fellowship from the National Foundation for India’s media fellowship for 2009-10. On Thursday, The Lost Childhood was awarded the prestigious National Press Photo Award 2011 for Best Picture Story.
Apart from culling poignant portraits of affected children and highlighting the conditions children work under, The Lost Childhood has broader trappings.
According to a report by the Resource Centre for Tobacco Free India, an independent organization, nearly 225,000 children are engaged in beedi-making across India. Murshidabad is a major centre for the beedi-rolling industry, which employs children, especially girls as young as 8. “Almost every household I visited in which the adults were involved in beedi rolling, drew in the children as well,” says Das.
India ranks among the top 5 in world tobacco consumption.
The children, says Das, work all day, with no breaks or holidays. They’re constantly exposed to tobacco dust and chemicals, making them prone to tuberculosis, spondylitis, asthma, anaemia, giddiness, postural and eye problems, as well as gynaecological complications. When beedis are stored in the house, food spoils quicker and family members experience nausea and headaches.
Still, families involve their children to have more hands on the job. Several advocacy groups and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) have recommended that the provisions of the Child Labour Act be enforced with immediate effect to prevent the engagement of children in beedi-rolling. But as Das points out, “No law can put an end to this problem till the people of this region, and indeed other centres in India, are introduced to alternative sources of income.”
Sucheta Das has been working for the last 12 years with news agencies such as Reuters and AP and has won several national and international awards for her work, including the World Press Photo and National Geographic Awards in 2006.