At Bharati's wife's village, most lives still tied to tendu leaves and tobacco flakes

For the majority of the women in Kadayam, a day begins and ends with beedi rolling, a major source of income.

Published: 14th August 2022 06:10 PM  |   Last Updated: 15th August 2022 10:32 AM   |  A+A-

Kadayam's Beedi workers

Would Subramania Bharathi have approved? (Photo | Iswarya Karthikeyan)

Online Desk

TENKASI: Kadayam is where poet Subramania Bharati's wife Chellamma belonged to. The poet wrote several of his lines at his in-law's house. Bharati's lines might inspire generations to come but down the years a change that could uplift the lives of the people of Kadayam, in the southern Tamil Nadu district of Tenkasi, eludes.

Kadayam. You can fancy a picturesque village with a couple of primary health centres, a few private hospitals and enough schools for children, but penury continues to lurk in the region.

For the majority of the women here, a day begins and ends with beedi rolling, which is a major source of income.

Around 8 am, the workers would amble towards the beedi company to buy Tendu leaf (also known as Temburini), tobacco flakes, and colour threads to tie the beedi. They then, come back and cook, have lunch and between 3 and 4 p.m. sit in front of their houses to start rolling beedis.

Beedi rolling is one of the low-income occupations, yet it is largely prevalent among the villagers, especially in the southern districts of the state. A beedi worker earns up to an average of Rs 1000 a week.

The calculation goes like this: one beedi packet -- with 13 beedis-- costs Rs 10. For rolling 1000 beedis, a worker earns approximately Rs 240 (Rs 236.40 to be precise). This means a beedi worker is paid approximately 20 paise for rolling one beedi. The consumer buys it for Rs 1.30. However, for most women, this job helps them support their families.

A majority of women who are engaged in this profession belong to the age group of 20 to 50 years.

Life lessons from Kadayam: Doing a difficult job with a smile. (Pic | Iswarya)

Interaction with the beedi workers sheds light on their lives and why beedi rolling is still relevant as a job in the rural areas of the southern districts of Tamil Nadu.

When asked why she chose this as her occupation, pat came the reply from 50-year-old K Selvi: "I didn't have much of an option. In my village, this is the job that is available for us. Hence, I got involved in beedi rolling. "

When asked about the health hazards caused by tobacco flakes since they are high in nicotine, she replied, "Indeed, my daughter tells me about this all the time. I have also heard about it, but this job gives me an income and helps me stand on my own. Earlier, I had to depend on my husband for a single penny. Now I have Rs 10,000 in my bank account and some money in my PF account, she says sounding confident."

40-year-old Shanmugaammal says she lost her husband when she was in her 30s. She had to find a job to raise her three school-going kids. At the same time, she also had to take care of her ailing mother-in-law. Then she found beedi rolling to be a suitable occupation to support her family.

Rani (25) says, "I don’t have a mother. She passed away when I was a little kid. My father is a daily-wage laborer. He makes 200 rupees a day. I have gone to school up to class III. I learned beedi rolling from my neighbor, who has been doing it for more than three decades."

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"Every year, my son gets scholarships because of this occupation. I do get head pain and skin irritations when I spend too much on rolling beedis, but now I’m being respected at my home because I’m earning money on my own," says 45-year-old Thangam.

50-year-old Sundari’s husband, Narayanan, has a different story to share. “We married off our daughter with my wife’s EPF (Employees Provident Fund) amount,” he says

Petchi, 53 years old, says that she is aware of the health hazards involved in this profession. "I get headaches and severe back pain often."

"I have heard beedi workers complaining about blurring vision and irritation in their eyes and skin," says Kala, who is also a beedi worker.

Muthulakshmi, 49, who has been rolling beedis for more than twelve years, says, "I’m hoping for a wage hike." She earns less than Rs 1000 a week. "We are paid less for our work," she rues.

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Chandra, 38 years old, says, "I wake up at 4 a.m. every morning. I do household chores and prepare breakfast and lunch for my family. Then, I start my beedi rolling at 8 a.m."

She further says, "Initially, I found it hard, but then, now I’m used to it. During the Covid-19 lockdown, I was bored. Though we (beedi rollers) are poorly paid, this work keeps us active. I cannot find myself barely sitting at home for hours and hours."

Interactions with the beedi workers show that they were not well aware of the health hazards posed by this job. Yet, they are doing it as self-employment to help them earn their livelihood. The villagers, who are from a poor background, are either working under the MGNREGA scheme or at beedi industries. To make 5000 rupees a month, they need to toil from dawn to dusk, which often results in health issues. But the feeling of standing on their own surpasses all the hindrances that come their way.


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