Mumbai/Kolkata/Hyderabad: The Union ministry of health and family welfare has deferred its plan to enforce legislation that stipulates printing of pictorial warning on beedi packets and tobacco products by six months, giving a breather to the beedi industry that employs 10 million workers across the country.

Beedi is a type of cheap Indian cigarette in which tobacco is rolled in tendu leaves.

Job insecurity: Women labourers making beedis in West Bengal. The beedi industry warned last month that as many as one million workers, mostly women, are set to lose their jobs in the next few months. Rupak De Chowdhuri / Reuters

The All India Beedi Industry Federation had last month said that as many as one million workers, mostly women, employed in the industry will lose their jobs in the next few months as a recent ban on smoking in public places, together with the display of pictorial warnings on packs, will discourage tobacco consumption, triggering a fall in sales.

The government is yet to finalize the picture to be used in the pictorial warning—a skull with crossed bones, a scorpion, or a picture depicting diseased lungs. But this is not what led the ministry to defer implementation of pictorial warnings. Actually, the notification dated 28 November does not cite any reason.

The six-month deferment is significant as two of the largest beedi manufacturing areas in the country—Jangipur in West Bengal and Gondia in Maharashtra—are associated with Union minister for external affairs, Pranab Mukherjee, and civil aviation minister Praful Patel, respectively. While Mukherjee represents Jangipur in Lok Sabha, Patel, a member of Rajya Sabha, hails from Gondia.

Jangipur, in Murshidabad district, is home to 700,000 beedi-rollers, the biggest beedi manufacturing centre in India, while Gondia has about 60,000 workers in eight beedi manufacturing units including those owned by the CeeJay Group of Praful Patel.

Relaxation of norms for the tobacco industry could be a strategic move by the government ahead of the general election next year as the beedi workers constitute a large vote bank. The other states which house important beedi production centres are Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka. There are about a million beedi workers in Andhra Pradesh and 800,000 in Karnataka spread across coastal districts of Dakshina Kannada and Udupi, besides Belgaum, Davanagere, Mysore and Bangalore.

Sudheer Sable, president of the Maharashtra Beedi Udyog Sangh, does not link the government’s move with the general election. “The relief has come because of economic slowdown and decline in beedi sales in past few months," he said. He said the real challenge would be to rehabilitate millions of beedi workers across the country before the pictorial warning on beedi packs come into force.

Rajnikant Patel, president of the All India Beedi Industry Federation, said eight million workers in India are directly involved in production of beedi such as rolling nicotine in tendu leaves and another two million, mostly tribal, help in plucking tendu leaves.

“We are happy that the government has decided to defer its plan for warnings on tobacco products. We had written to the government that printing of the pictorial warning will lead to a further decline in sales of beedis and impact 10 million beedi workers," Patel said. “Beedi units in Gondia have reduced production by 20% in the last two months as stock is piling up and there are no takers for the pending stock. This has had a direct impact on the earnings of beedi workers as they are now rolling less number of beedis per day," said Subhash Jain, president of Vidarbha Beedi Manufacturing Association.

Trade union leaders in beedi producing districts, such as Murshidabad, Gondia and Nizamabad in Andhra Pradesh, said introduction of pictorial warnings on beedi packs will impact the sole means of livelihood of millions of people.

“The workers rolling beedis across Andhra Pradesh are facing employment problems ever since the ministry stepped up its anti-smoking campaign and directed the beedi industry to come out with pictorial warning signs on the packs," said A.S. Posetti, president of Andhra Pradesh Bidi Workers Federation, which has 16 registered unions of beedi workers as members.

There are around 40 beedi manufacturers in Andhra Pradesh and the annual industry turnover is about Rs1,500 crore. Most of them have cut their production, apprehending a sharp drop in sales once the pictorial warnings are put in place, said Posetti.

According to the 2001 census, Murshidabad has about 600,000 people employed in the industry. However, the local trade union leaders claim the figure has swelled to 1.1 million now and the industry will be left with no choice but downsizing the workforce as health warnings and ban on smoking in public places will dent sales.

“The picture of a body on a beedi packet is bound to have a psychological impact on the customers. And if that happens, loss of employment is obvious," said Mustak Hussain, chairman and managing director of Pataka Group of Industries which sells beedis under the brand name of “502". Pataka is one of the largest beedi makers in the country producing 11 crore beedi sticks per day with the help of 150,000 workers.

“Beedi-rolling is the only occupation in the area," said Nizamuddin Ahmed, general secretary of Jangipur Sub-Division Bidi Mazdoor Union.

The daily wage rate for beedi-rollers in Murshidabad is Rs41 per day. Trade union leaders, however, claim that the actual amount received by the workers ranges from Rs33-35, and many of them live below the poverty line with no alternative source of income.

According to Jakir Hussain, managing director of Shiv Bidi Factory Pvt. Ltd, another beedi maker operating out of Murshidabad, a slump in beedi sales in the domestic market would add to the woes of manufacturers who have already seen an erosion of their export markets with Western countries adopting a stiff stance against child labour, liberally employed by the beedi industry.

Ajay Sukumaran also contributed to this story.