Breathless, north Kerala beedi industry on ‘palliative care’ | Kerala News


(Note: This is Onmanorama’s special project that tracks the impact of the lockdown on people from different strata of Kerala society. Read all nine stories here.)

Vishwambharan sits on a chair holding a shallow basket made of reed. He quickly picks up beedi leaves, fills them with tobacco, pats them to even out the distribution of the tobacco, rolls them up and ties them with cotton thread.

Vishawabharan is an experienced beedi roller in Cheruvathur in the Kasaragod district of Kerala. He has worked for 30 years for Bharath Beedi, based in Mangaluru. Before the start of the pandemic, he was driving 1,000 beedis per day and earning Rs 250 (Rs 1,500 in a six-day week). But the COVID-19 pandemic and the resulting economic downturn have given it many sleepless nights. When the nation went into lockdown for 68 days in four phases from March 24 to May 31, 2020, Vishwambharan got no work. After the lockdown was lifted, he was inactive for another month because his employer could not provide raw materials. When he finally returned to work in June, employers rationed the supply of materials. Since then, he has only obtained material for 2,000 beedis (compared to 6,000 beedis during the pre-COVID period). Thus, his monthly income went from Rs 6,000 to only Rs 2,000.

Vishwambharan says his income is not enough to buy medicine for his heart disease. “We are going through a difficult phase. Beedi manufacturing is a dying industry. I don’t know how long we can survive, ”he said.

Viswambharan represents more than 35,000 beedi workers in Kerala, whose lives have been severely affected by the pandemic and containment. What saved them during the hard times was the free food supply by the government. “The families of 1,500 beedi workers in our locality survived on the food supply,” he said.

Beedi driving underway. Photo: TA Ameerudheen

Thousands of families in Kozhikode, Kannur and Kasaragod districts in northern Kerala depend on the beedi rolling for a living.

Kannur is known as the hub of the beedi industry as it is home to the headquarters of Kerala Dinesh Beedi (KDB), the largest beedi workers cooperative society under the state government department of industry and commerce. In addition, private beedi makers in Karnataka and Kerala also employ thousands of beedi workers in the district.

Breathless, north Kerala beedi industry on 'palliative care'

Vishwambharan rides beedi at Cheruvathur in Kasaragod district. Photo: TA Ameerudheen

The KDB was formed after 12,000 workers were kicked out of the services of Mangaluru-based Ganesh Beedi in 1968. The Kerala government responded to the mass layoffs by helping unemployed workers form a beedi workers cooperative based in Mangaluru. Kannur. It started with 3,000 workers. The number rose to 42,000 when the industry peaked between the 1970s and 1980s. The decline of the industry began after the 1990s with the intensification of the anti-smoking campaign by governments and the World Organization. of health. Around 15,000 employees have opted for voluntary retirement. Today, only 4,500 workers – mostly women – work in the beedi sector. Kerala Dinesh has diversified its operations and is present in a range of sectors, such as food processing and manufacturing, umbrella manufacturing, information technology and clothing manufacturing. Despite the decline, Kerala Dinesh Beedi continues to be the highest paid employer in the beedi market. The company pays Rs 336 for 1,000 beedis.

According to K Prabhakaran, Secretary of Kerala Dinesh Beedi and former deputy director of the State Department of Industries and Commerce, workers lost 3 lakh days of work and Rs 10 crore in wages due to the lockdown. Many workers had contracted the virus and they lost working days during their quarantine period. “The workers lost 2 lakh working days and Rs 6.7 crore in wages for such reasons. The Beedi industry is on the brink of death. COVID-19 and lockdown have worsened his condition. We are giving him “palliative” care, Prabhakaran said.

This is why workers like Vishwambharan, who is mentioned at the beginning of this story, say they have no hope of reviving the industry. “I no longer have any hope for its rebirth. The closure of bedi’s manufacturing units is imminent. I am worried about the workers who will lose their jobs, ”Vishwambharan said.

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