A woman rolls beedis | Wikimedia Commons
A woman rolls beedis | Wikimedia Commons
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At a time when India is debating how to reduce the beedi industry’s burden on women workers, India’s southern states are providing a blueprint. While there has been an overall increase of 2.1 million beedi workers in India between 1993 and 2018, there has also been a significant reduction — close to one million — in the number of beedi workers, mostly women, in the southern states of Tamil Nadu, Andhra Pradesh/Telangana and Karnataka.

These changes came to light in a recent study published by Delhi-based research-consulting group AF Development Care in July. Why are beedi workers’ numbers declining in particular pockets of the country, and what explains the fall in southern states in the past two-and-a-half decades — are some of the key questions, addressed by the researchers in the report titled Knowledge Gap in Existing Research on India’s Women Beedi Rollers and Alternative Livelihood Options.


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South’s pro-women policies

The report says the reduction of beedi workers in the south can be attributed to the success of different women-focused programmes and long-term policy changes, taken up by successive governments over the last nearly three decades.

Women constitute 84 per cent of the beedi workforce in India.

The women beedi workers in the south, like any other region, were vulnerable to low wage, hazardous work environment, systemic exploitation, lack of social security and limited access to various welfare schemes. However, their aspiration to shift to safer and more rewarding alternative livelihoods was met with many obstacles such as: low education level, inadequate skill adaptability, credit availability and lack of proper vocational training.

Policy changes have provided them alternative options so they can shift to other economically viable and non-hazardous professions. For example, Tamil Nadu, which has reported the maximum reduction in the number of beedi workers (541,000) has the distinction of having the largest share of establishments under women entrepreneurs (13.51 per cent) in India, according to the Economic Census, 2013. Tamil Nadu also has the third-highest female literacy rate — 73.4 per cent.

The sex ratio, another key indicator of women empowerment, is also better in India’s southern states and union territories. Kerala has the highest with 1,084 females per 1,000 males, followed by Puducherry (1,037/1,000), Tamil Nadu (996/1,000) and Andhra Pradesh (993/1,000).

In Karnataka, gender budgeting was adopted in 2006-07 and a Gender Budget Cell was established under the finance department in collaboration with the women and child development department.

The Right to Property law has witnessed unprecedented changes from the days of un-codified Hindu law in states such as Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Tamil Nadu. It has extended equal rights to women.

There are 6,834 Industrial Training Institute/Centres (ITI/ITCs) in India. Of this, nearly 38 per cent exist in the southern states. In terms of female workforce participation, all the southern states have scored better than the national average, with Andhra Pradesh being the highest (51.3 per cent), according to a government report.

In 2018-19, the Karnataka government approved the employment of women workers in the night shift, giving women more choice and agency.

Such positive indicators and moves have provided space for women in the workforce. It shows how systemic changes slowly reflect in the career opportunities women can avail in the long run. Improvements in education, law, skilling slowly uplift all women.


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Re-skilling and up-skilling women

Apart from bringing policy-level changes to make the system pro-women, the way India’s southern states have delivered and shifted women from hazardous professions such as beedi rolling should be a model for the northern and eastern states to copy.

The research report found that most of these women now have their own farm, or are employed in agricultural labour, and have benefited from MGNREGA. Some women are also doing government and private jobs.

Government initiatives for skill development of women beedi rollers have not been very effective. The provision of alternative livelihood options must be guided in the local context (for instance, availability of raw materials, demand of the product, marketability) and keeping in mind these women’s capacity. This is missing in the current government approach. For example, in 2019, only 1,025 of the total 2,223 women beedi rollers (out of the nearly seven million beedi rollers in India) trained under the initiative, shifted to alternative jobs.

Bibek Debroy, chairman of the Prime Minister’s Economic Advisory Council, has rightly written in his foreword for the report that “we need to understand more with further research on what are the constraints (education, skills, credit) for women to choose alternative sources of livelihood? This is very important to re-skilling the country’s workforce”.

Commenting on this research report, Derek Yach, president of the Foundation for a Smoke-Free World and former executive director of the World Health Organization (WHO), wrote that the “report fills an important gap in providing a systematic review of the bidi sector in India”.

He went on to write, “As this report shows, bidi production is disproportionately carried out by women who often suffer from low wages, exploitative practices, and a plethora of occupational hazards. These women are arguably the most disadvantaged in the bidi value chain and serious work is needed to help women and their children secure a better future.”

The only option for India to shift as many women beedi workers to other professions as possible is to roll out pro-women long-term policies, like the southern states are doing, and provide capacity-building support and market opportunity.

The author is the principal investigator of the research report on Women Beedi Rollers and Alternative Livelihood Options and Director of AF Development Care, New Delhi. Views are personal.

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