Bidi, that quintessentially Indian puff, has become a victim of politics, with thousands of bidi workers in the southern districts of Tamil Nadu going on strike.
About one million workers rolling bidis, nicotine wrapped in leaf, from Tirunelveli, Tuticorin and Kanyakumari districts began a strike this weekend to protest the union health ministry making the skull and crossbones sign on packets mandatory from June 1 this year.
Though the ruling DMK has supported the strike, its alliance partner PMK has obviously not with its man Anbumani Ramadoss at the helm of the union health ministry.
The universal sign for danger has thus become the latest bone of contention between the two coalition partners.
Leaving no room for ambiguity, Chief Minister M. Karunanidhi has jumped into the fray and written to Prime Minister Manmohan Singh urging an immediate halt to the health ministry's move.
He said that the livelihood of 1.5 million bidi workers in Tamil Nadu was being threatened.
"I kindly request you to defer the decision to introduce the skull mark to a better future and protect the livelihood of lakhs of beedi worker families," Karunanidhi wrote.
Bidi smoking, like cigarettes and other nicotine products, is said to be injurious to health and has been officially declared so by the central government.
But the caution, in the form of the skull symbol, which will reach the remotest parts of the country will reduce sales, fears the Tamil Nadu Bidi Workers' Federation.
"The future of bidi rollers have been put into uncertainty," said A. Abdul Hameed, president of the Federation, adding that bidi production is the highest in Tamil Nadu.
The workers' federation says the manufacturers are halting production of beedis after the government directive. They are "also using the directive as a pretext to deny workers their wages and other dues".
Federation members estimate that manufacturers have defaulted by Rs.1 billion in benefits due to workers and associated staff in the industry in these three districts alone.
The federation has threatened an indefinite strike from June 1 if the government does not mediate and help bidi workers get their dues.
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