RAHATGARH, MADHYA PRADESH: Gudiya is barely three but her tiny fingers are adept at rolling bidis. Sitting beside her grandmother, she picks up a tendu leaf, fills it with tobacco and ties it up, carefully.
Gudiya may be the youngest in the group but she is no exception. From Sagar to Jabalpur in Madhya Pradesh, lakhs of children work in thebidi belt. All this is done to help their families survive. What's more is that the problem seems to be passing on from generation to generation. Munni Bai, a bidi roller is a classic case in point. "I have four children. Two sons and two daughters. They all roll bidis. They started when they were 10."
Government estimates say one fourth of bidi workers in the state are children below 14, which means of the estimated 14 lakh bidi workers, 3.5 lakh are children. But despite these shocking figures, the government seems to have made little effort to stop it. As Ajit Jain, Secretary of the Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) and an MP points out, "Who is the employer of the child? The law is silent. In all cases, the employer gets away The government also backs off.
"We say that whoever's label is on the bidi, that employer should make a declaration that no child labourers are being employed. But it is difficult to establish who the employer is because the names of workers are not registered.''
Jain and others trade unionists are demanding an amendment to the law enacted in 1966. They want the government to register all bidi workers. However, bidi producers are unwilling to comply as it would expose the use of child labour in their business. As a result, these children whittle away their childhood amidst tobacco fumes.