The dying breed of traditional ‘beedi tasters’

AHMEDABAD: Like father, unlike son. After five decades of tasting and rolling beedis in Nadiad district in Gujarat, 70-year-old Ghanshyambhai Samantsing called it a day last year. In what is still considered a traditional profession, none of his three sons followed him into it. Samantsing didn’t encourage them. “It was not healthy - I used to sometimes smoke 25-100 beedis in a day - and not rewarding,” he says.

The sons saw better options elsewhere. One is a driver, the other a farmer and the third runs a grocery shop. Second son Dharmendra Samantsing, 37, who is a driver by profession, highlights the generational shift. “During our father’s time, the only industry to work in was tobacco companies or farms,” he says. “Now, we have so many options. I work only for eight hours a day in air-conditioned comfort and earn Rs 5,000 a month.”

The next generation opting out is fuelling a labour crisis in the 21,000 crore, labour-intensive beedi industry. The country’s largest agri-based employer, with 6 million workers, is facing a shortage of beedi tasters and rollers. It might be among the oldest and most cash-rich in the country, but it’s also an industry in decline. And one reason is the dropping of the family baton.

Lack of Skilled Labour

There’s a skill to being a beedi taster. A taster smells the tobacco, looks at its colour and feels its weight. He then rolls the tobacco in a beedi and smokes it. “From the swirl of the smoke, we can tell its quality, nicotine level, sugar level, etc,” says Ghanshyambhai.

He recalls the lack of employment choices when he was starting out. “I had the option to work in a farm or in an agro-processing unit of a tobacco company,” he says. He chose the tobacco company, as “there is not much of toiling hard in the fields”. And if one is a taster, as Ghanshyambhai was, you get paid extra. Each tobacco-processing unit has two to three tasters. This sometimes includes the owner. With no fixed retirement age, the tasters continue till their health permits.

It’s valuable experience, says Vijay Patel, who runs a tobacco processor unit in Kaira district of central Gujarat, and processes 7,000-10,000 bags (one bag = 35 kg) of tobacco annually. Patel swears by the skill of the taster and the beedi roller, which have passed down generations. “This is a traditional business and you don’t need certified people. It is a matter of experience to judging tobacco quality,” says Patel, who smokes only for tobacco blend testing.

But unlike, say, the tea and liquor business, there are no professional beedi tasters, says a trader from Kolkata. “People who are from the trade, trustworthy and like smoking are asked to smoke beedis to try and grade the different batches of tobacco before buying them,” he says.

However, the numbers coming into the trade are falling. “It is difficult to get a ‘kaarigar’ (worker) to make beedi,” says Rajnikant Patel, the owner of Prabhudas Kishoredas Tobacco Product. He attributes the slump to the changing economy and the National Rural Employment Guarantee Scheme (NREGS), which assures an individual 100 days of work in a year. “The new generation does not find the job interesting. We are now testing the tobacco blend on our own or asking the broker.” The Ahmedabad-based company, which is about 80 years old, makes and sells 80 million sticks a day under the brand name ‘Telephone’.

The Industry

Patel says beedi production has fallen 10-15% in the last two years. Prices have fallen even more. A bumper crop this year has resulted in processed tobacco prices falling to Rs 35-80 a kg, compared with Rs 80-150 in the same period in 2010. Then, there is the increasing tax burden and regulations, and the increasing health awareness and education that is making consumers shift from beedis to cigarettes and chewing tobacco.

Still, between 700 and 800 billion beedi sticks are consumed annually — about seven to eight times that of cigarettes. As per industry estimates, more than 60% of beedi volumes are in north and west India. “There are more than 2,000 beedi-making units in the country, with 25 to 30 large players,” says Patel, who is also the president of the All India Beedi Industry Federation. “West Bengal and Andhra Pradesh have the maximum number of beedi manufacturing units.” Telephone, Bharat No 30, 502 Pataka and Chota Desai are the top four brands in terms of market share.

Official numbers are unavailable, but it is estimated that about 5,000 people are engaged in tobacco tasting in Gujarat. Like beedi-making companies, tobacco-processing units are unorganised, family-owned and based in remote villages. Interestingly, tobacco tasters work with tobacco processors and decide which blend will suit which brand. Tasters smoke all the brands of beedis their employer (processor) intends to supply. In a way, the taste of the brand depends on the tasters at the field processing level.

Man or Machine?

In some units, machines are doing the work of men. “Large exporters are increasingly feeling the need to have machinery to judge the quality of tobacco, including the levels of nicotine, sugar, chloride and hardness, among other things,” says the trader from Kolkata.

Smaller units, on the one hand, cannot afford this mechanisation in tasting and packaging. On the other, they are finding it difficult to find people, with the current generation disinterested in this profession — a point of view that has the blessings of fathers like 48-year-old Arvindbhai Vajteshe.

Vajteshe, a class ten dropout, works as a manager-cum-beedi taster Vithalbhai Motibhai Patel & Sons, a tobacco-processing unit in Moholel village in Nadiad district. He started smoking beedis on joining the profession 25 years ago. When the senior taster of his unit retired, Vajteshe’s bosses started teaching him the salient points of a good tobacco. “Now from the colour of a tobacco leaf, I can tell its quality,” he says proudly. “Golden-coloured tobacco leaves are the best quality as they give a good taste when blended with sweet Nipani tobacco of South India.”

Yet, Vajteshe is happy to see such intimate knowledge of this profession not being passed on down his family. “My elder son is doing a diploma in civil engineering from Godhra. My second son is in class nine and I want to make him an accountant,” says Vajteshe firmly.

For Patel, the stakes are even higher. “The challenge we foresee is about succession,” he says. “My son is a computer engineer in the US and not interested in the beedi and tobacco business,” says Vijay Patel.

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