Thousands of women who roll bidi in Solapur suffer from occupational hazards like gastrointestinal and nervous problems, throat burning, cough and respiratory problems. They continue to live in dingy shanties in this 'bidi capital' of the state, as their dream for healthier jobs and a dignified life are mired in vote-bank politics. Of the 300 major bidi companies, Solapur alone houses 23 brands and 246 sub-divisions of bidi industries employing over 72,000 women. They end up with tuberculosis and bronchial asthma when they inhale fine tobacco dust, a recent research by Mumbai-based Factory Advisory Services and Labour Institute, a part of the labour ministry, said.
"Before me, my grandmother and mother have rolled bidi. I grew up seeing my mother at work inhaling tobacco dust and coughing continuously. I do not want my daughter to get into this. But then there is no option. We want some other jobs, but there is none," bidi roller Yellama said.
A study conducted by the Voluntary Health Association of India claimed that workers spending 12 hours rolling bidis faced the risk of contracting TB and developing chronic bronchitis, asthma, skin and spinal problems.
"We have no other option for a livelihood. While some politicians assured us jobs in textile units, others promised us training in candle-making and food items. But nothing has changed for us," a bidi worker said.
Solapur is Union power minister Sushilkumar Shinde's bastion. He has won elections from different constituencies of Solapur district in 1977, 1980, 1985, 1990, 2003 and 2004. Now that he has moved to central politics, Solapur's political legacy is with his daughter Praniti who represents Solapur South Central assembly constituency dominated by bidi workers. She has promised rehabilitation plans and when her father was chief minister, he had promised healthy jobs to bidi rollers.
"Nothing has happened. Every election, we get new promises, but nobody bothers after elections," a woman bidi roller told TOI. "The recent Solapur municipal elections may be a new beginning. Communist Party of India (M) which drew strength from Solapur is now diminishing and their politics to exploit poor bidi workers is coming to a close," said Praniti Shinde who defeated veteran Communist leader and three-time MLA Narsayya Adam in the Solapur city central constituency in 2009 elections.
Solapur's politics has revolved around the bidi industry and despite hazardous working conditions and health problems women face, politicians across party lines continue to support the industry to ensure control over the city's politics. Every time the central government comes out with an anti-tobacco or smoking law, Solapur's politicians oppose it. Shiv Sena, BJP and NCP leaders have their own unions to lead bidi rollers.
"We won't tolerate anything that is against our livelihood. The government should target other illegal businesses before it targets us," said former corporator Nalini Kalburgi.
"We are trying hard to rehabilitate them. I have started tailoring courses for bidi workers and am talking to textile industries to provide them jobs. Rehabilitation is a mammoth task," Praniti told TOI. However, she added, that they will not allow the government to shut down the tobacco industry. "Thousands of families depend on the bidi industry and it is the government's responsibility to provide alternative work before banning bidis."
Adam said the Congress was misguiding the people. "The Shindes are elite politicians who are not aware of ground realities. When Sushil Kumar Shinde was chief minister he had assured 100 per cent rehabilitation. The central government is planning to ban tobacco. He is doing nothing for the people dependent on the bidi industry," he added.
He said their fight was against the Congress and its leaders who want to ban bidi and tobacco. "The Shindes may claim that they have ended Communist politics, but the fact remains that we are still strong in Solapur and the state. It is a fight between money power and poor workers. We tried to provide some alternatives," said Adam. The CPI (M) had constructed over 10,000 houses in Kumbhari village, 25 km away from Solapur for bidi workers.
"Solapur's economy is in dire state. Once know as textile and bidi town of the state, poverty is high here. The textile industry has already shut down and the bidi industry is in a bad shape as the government is strengthening anti-smoking laws," a senior activist who has extensively written on the bidi workers' problems, said.
"Every time there is an election, we get assurances. We have accepted that things are not going to change for us, whoever comes to power," a dejected Rukmini in Duttanagar slums, said.