Thanks to their occupation of rolling bidis, about 50,000 women in Solapur are keeping the fires burning in their homes, even as their men are losing jobs in the textile sector. These women, rolling bidis for about 200 branded bidi factories, have the support of the ‘bidi card’, their lifeline to credit and a host of other benefits.
These cards have helped them sustain during the crisis and raise money from formal and informal lenders as the bidi card is treated as credit in Solapur. Bidi factories offer bidi cards — a piece of paper given to women highly skilled in bidi rolling, which ensures her permanent bidi rolling work and other benefits including provident fund, bonus, and medical assistance.
Bidi rolling is manual at all stages, and scissors and threads are the only tools used to make bidis. For decades women in Solapur have been active in bidi making. They have passed on the skill to their daughters, who are deprived of education. Not surprisingly bidi card is more valuable to them than a school or college certificate. Solapur is known as the textile and bidi hub of Maharashtra. While men work in the textile industry, women earn a living rolling bidis.
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“There are about 50,000 bidi rollers in Solapur. Women here have specialised themselves in bidi rolling. After fighting a legal battle for years, bidi workers have earned rights as industrial employees and get all benefits that employees are entitled to under various government Acts. Men are not into bidi rolling as they don’t have the skill to roll bidis,” says Narasayya Adam, leader of bidi workers. However, there are about 10,000-12,000 women working as contract workers, who are deprived of these benefits.
Local scribe Suryakant Asbe who has studied bidi workers says, “The bidi card is like a credit card for poor women in Solapur. Any formal or informal lender (banks or private money lenders) woule be happy to provide loans to bidi cardholders. These cards are a lifeline for poor women during every economic crisis, including the ongoing crisis caused by the Covid-19-led lockdown.”
Balasaheb Jagdale of Solapur Bidi Udyog Sangh adds, “The textile industry in Solapur is on death bed, and after Covid-19, the situation has worsened. It is the women bidi rollers who have anchored their families during this crisis as the bidi industry is operating smoothly (compared to other industries). Girls get training at home and those who have bidi cards have demand in the marriage market.”
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Women have to visit the bidi factory only to collect the raw material and deposit the bidis. They roll bidis at home, besides doing the daily household chores. This makes bidi rolling the favourite employment for women.
But this ‘credit card’ comes at a cost. Bidi rollers suffer from occupational hazards, including gastrointestinal issues, burning sensation in the throat, nerve-related problems, cough, and respiratory complications. A study conducted by the Voluntary Health Association of India had claimed that workers spending 12 hours rolling bidis faced the risk of contracting TB and developing chronic bronchitis, asthma, skin, and spinal problems.
“If the government provides alternate work, we are ready to quit bidi rolling. Is there any alternative?” they ask. The government has no answer to their question.
Janabai Gadekar, 40, has been rolling bidis for more than a decade. “I am a bidi card holder and this gives me a lot of confidence. I can get a loan easily, I have an assurance of job and payment. Most importantly I can stay at home and earn. What else do you need?” she asks. Like Janabai other bidi card holders say that the bidi card is the real Aadhar card for them.