Photographer: Udit Kulshrestha/Bloomberg
Photographer: Udit Kulshrestha/Bloomberg

Bidis: The Hand-Rolled Cigarettes That Keep More Than Four Million Indians Employed

The poor man's smoke, cheap tobacco wrapped in a coarse leaf, the bidi cigarette is the fragrance of the jumbled streets of India. It's something rarely present in the comfort of air conditioned rooms. The scent of the bidi swirls around you when stepping into an auto rickshaw — flavors include chocolate, cherry and cinnamon — or walking through an alley, past a group of day laborers. More than four million Indians make bidi cigarettes for a living, some 90 percent of them in homes or small workshops. Photographs by Udit Kulshrestha for Bloomberg

A woman rolls tobacco for a bidi cigarette at her home in Kannauj, Uttar Pradesh. 

Bidi (also spelled beedi) cigarettes are usually wrapped with leaves from the Coromandel ebony tree — known as tendu leaves — which are left to dry for several days before being rolled and tied at one end with a piece of string.

Bidi-making is a cottage industry across India, with the slim cigarettes often rolled, roasted and packaged in small workshops adjacent to or within homes. There are at least three Indian labor laws that apply directly to bidi workers, including employment conditions and welfare measures. But serious concerns remain about child and bonded labor.

Once they have been bundled together the bidis are stacked on their ends and roasted to remove moisture, stiffen the cigarettes and add flavor. 

Smoking in public places is illegal in India. Still, the prevalence of bidis is staggering. One 2010 survey estimated that while on average a daily cigarette smoker in India — and there are more than 100 million smokers in the nation — goes through 6.2 cigarettes a day. For a bidi user the figure is 11.6 bidi sticks daily. 

An extensive examination of the bidi, published by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare, cited a description of its use as early as 1711: "The description referred to a product the size of the little finger, containing a small quantity of tobacco wrapped in the leaf of a tree and sold in bundles."

The same report said there was no definitive account of when the manufacture of bidis began in India. It pointed, though, to a 1946 government finding that merchants from the western state of Gujarat introduced the trade in the first decade of the 20th century.

Cancer rates in India are much lower than in Western Europe, but they are predicted to rise by 70 percent to 1.7 million new cases a year over the next two decades, according to a report in British journal The Lancet, published in 2014. It noted "many cancer cases in India are associated with tobacco use." 

Taxes on bidis are much lower than on cigarettes. As a World Health Organization report said, "the tax structure favors products that are consumed by the poor." 

Many people believe bidis are less harmful than regular cigarettes but they can actually contain higher levels of nicotine. 

Efforts by the government to discourage smoking — including higher duties, health warnings and the banning of smoking scenes in films — have largely focused on regular cigarettes, while bidis have been left alone.

Bidis can come in flavors including chocolate, mango, vanilla, cherry and cinnamon. Their sweet aroma and colorful packaging can make them appealing to younger smokers.