Children Toil in Poverty to Produce India’s Bidi Cigarettes

March 20, 2012


Sagira Ansari suffers from coughs, colds, fever and persistent headaches. But her ailments do not shorten her workday or slow her as she drops flakes of tobacco into square-cut leaves, rolls them deftly and ties the ends of a bidi cigarette with twists of red thread.

'I can't play around,' she laments in a story by the Associated Press.

At age 11, Sagira, is surrounded by dust as she works eight-hour shifts producing bidis, a popular form of tobacco smoked mostly by men in India — but made by women and children.

Taking advantage of poverty, the low social status of women and children and a government that averts its eyes, an estimated 225,000 children are engaged in bidi-making. Though Indian law prohibits children younger than 14 from working with bidis or in other hazardous industries, children are allowed to produce the tobacco products if they are assisting their families’ work at home.

Bidi smoking has been shown to increase the risk of lung cancer, heart attacks, chronic bronchitis, tuberculosis and other respiratory diseases. Rollers experience several ill health effects, including asthma, anemia, and postural and eye problems. When bidis are stored in the house, food spoils more quickly and family members can experience nausea and headaches.

Sagira rarely attends school, though she dreams of becoming a schoolteacher. Without action against child labor, the prospects for her future are dim: The more expert she becomes at making bidis, the more favorable a marriage prospect she becomes.