Construction workers

Migrants’ misery

Print edition : November 24, 2017

Saidur Sheikh of Goalbari village with his wife and children. Photo: Suhrid Sankar Chattopadyay

Men giving the women a helping hand in binding beedis in Jorpukuria village. Photo: SUHRID SANKAR CHATTOPADYAY

Akhmal Sheikh, a shopkeeper of Jorpukuria, with loose coins. Photo: Suhrid Sankar Chattopadyay

In the villages of Farakka block, women bind beedis to supplement family income.

More than 50 per cent of the construction workers of Farakka continue to remain jobless.

SAIDUR SHEIKH, a construction worker from Goalbari village in Farakka block of West Bengal’s Murshidabad district, sits helping his wife bind beedis, a job traditionally done by the womenfolk of the district to supplement the family income. The women are paid Rs.126 for every 1,000 beedis bound. The majority of the men of Farakka, a region known to be one of the biggest suppliers of construction workers to the labour market, spend most part of the year away from the villages, working in other States. However, since demonetisation in November 2016, more than 50 per cent of the construction workers of Farakka have been languishing at home, unable to find work.

Saidur, who hardly had any work in the past one year, watched helplessly as his mother died of cancer practically without any treatment. The local people could not help even if they wanted to as they were in the same boat. Saidur has run up a debt of Rs.60,000 of which Rs.50,000 has been borrowed from moneylenders at an exorbitant rate of interest. At construction sites, he used to earn Rs.300-400 a day. Now he earns only around Rs.60 a day from binding beedis. “As things stand today, I do not know if I will ever be able to come out of this debt,” he said. Saidur has two children, a two-year-old son and a three-year-old daughter.

It is the same story with only minor variations, in all the villages in the region. Hundreds of families of construction workers face a bleak, uncertain future. Before November 2016, hardly any able-bodied men in the 18 to 50 age group remained in the village; they would all be out in other States earning a livelihood. Today, these men can be seen loitering blank-faced and angry or sitting with sullen faces at tea stalls.

Bedaruddin Sheikh, a labour contractor in Farakka, told Frontline that the entire economy of the region, which is dependent on construction labour and beedi binding, has been on the verge of collapse ever since demonetisation came into effect. “One year ago, I was supplying at least 200 labourers every two months to different parts of the country. Today, I have just 50 men working outside. More than 50 per cent of the labourers are not getting any work anywhere and are without an alternative source of income. Construction companies are not able to provide enough work for us in view of demonetisation and Goods and Services Tax,” said Bedaruddin. His phone keeps ringing constantly with men calling to ask for work, any work. “People are getting desperate for work, but I cannot give them any,” said Bedaruddin. Some of the places he has regularly supplied labour to from Farakka are Etawah in Uttar Pradesh, Gujarat, Tamil Nadu, Odisha, Tripura and Kolkata.

Major players in the construction business, while maintaining that the industry has slowed down all over the country, also acknowledge that some of the measures taken by the Central government have further aggravated the situation. “In the expectation of a boom, a lot of projects got launched, and now the demand is far behind supply. All these measures—demonetisation, GST and RERA [the Real Estate (Regulation and Development) Act, 2016, was framed to establish the Real Estate Regulatory Authority]—have had their impact and have slowed down the industry further. The measures may be good in the long term, but it is certainly causing some problems now because there are a number of stringent conditions that have to be met, and one has to recalibrate one’s projects to meet those terms,” one of the top builders operating in Kolkata told Frontline.

In the villages of Murshidabad, it is not the custom for men to bind beedis. Even in times of distress, there are men who scoff at the prospect of helping their wives and daughters to bind beedis. “Is that a man’s job? I have never done it in my life; I can’t start now,” said Monirul Sheikh of Bhairabdanga village. Monirul has had barely three months of work in the past one year. “The moment I get a job anywhere in the country, I will leave.” But as months go by and no work comes their way, more and more men in the villages are learning to swallow their pride and lend their wives a helping hand in binding beedis. Abdul Bari, who has had no work in the past eight months, feels there is no other option. He and his wife have seven children to support, and beedi is the only source of income for them. “We make around Rs.80-90 a day. There is no way that I can give my children an education; just keeping them fed is the main challenge for us now,” he said.

The beedi industry is facing a crisis. It is not able to sustain the increasing demands made on it. Mosharraf Hussein, a middleman in the beedi industry, acknowledged that he was not able to distribute enough raw materials to the families to bind beedis. “I am not able to give work to as many people as I could before because the companies are not giving me a large quantity of leaves for distribution,” he said. People like Mosharraf obtain raw materials such as leaves, tobacco and strings from the beedi companies and distribute them to the families. They collect the bound beedis and take them to the factory for processing. Since the supply of raw materials has come down, the income of the families has also declined.

Imani Biswas, a prominent leader of the ruling Trinamool Congress and one of the biggest beedi barons in the State, said that more than 12 lakh people who solely depended on the beedi industry in Murshidabad had been affected by demonetisation and the implementation of GST. “We are in a very bad way. Owing to the implementation of GST, the sale of beedis has come down, and so we also have had to reduce our production. In Murshidabad, beedi production has come down by around 30 per cent,” said Imani Biswas, who owns Howrah Beedi, one of the biggest beedi brands in the State. According to him, GST has been slapped on practically all the components that go into beedi manufacturing—tendu leaves, tobacco and even the strings that are used to bind beedis.

The 28 per cent GST rate on beedi has led to a hike in price and, as a result, a fall in demand. “Beedi is one thing that poor people can afford. With the hike in price, following the introduction of GST, they can no longer afford it. They are taking substitutes. This has hit the industry badly,” West Bengal Labour Minister Jakir Hossain, who is also the owner of the popular Shiv Beedi brand, told Frontline.

There has been a constant fear since demonetisation that beedi factories will become economically unviable and shut down. It is a fear bred by an increasingly hopeless situation faced by the people, particularly women. “With the men sitting at home without work, if beedi binding work is stopped we will starve to death.” said Tuera Biwi of Jorpukuria.

With failing eyesight and arthritic fingers, Hajara Bewa, a 65-year-old widow whose three sons are construction labourers now out of work, can barely earn Rs.30 a day. One thing she finds difficult to come to terms with is seeing her grandchildren go hungry. In the past one year, almost all the families in the Farakka region have run into deep debt. “It is women who go and ask for a loan as they are the ones who are earning now,” said Abdul Jabbar of Jorpukuria village. Abdul, who has borrowed Rs.35,000 from a moneylender for a tenure of two years, has to repay Rs.1,900 on the third of every month. Failure to pay on time entails a penalty. “The conditions of the loan are harsh, but we have no other choice but to accept them,” he said, adding that more than 95 per cent of the villagers are in debt.

A unique local problem

Another problem facing the people of the region is that local markets and even nationalised banks do not accept large sums of money in small denominations, particularly in coins. “The beedi companies pay us in coins of Rs.10, Rs.5 and Rs.2. Markets and banks are not willing to accept small denominations. As a result, we are stuck with money we cannot use,” said Asma Biwi. The women said they complained to the middlemen against payment in coins, but it evoked no response. “They simply tell us to either accept the payment or take up some other work,” said a woman.

Local shopkeepers stuck with cash in coins are unable to buy bulk stocks. Akhmal Sheikh of Jorpukuria, who has been accepting payment in coins, is now holding more than Rs.40,000 in small change. He is unable to replenish his supplies using loose coins. “It will be difficult to reject coins from my customers as they are all my friends and neighbours. But after a point I will have to stop accepting coins for payment. My stock is getting depleted and I cannot do anything about it,” he said.

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