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Eradicate tobacco like polio

Is India really serious about fulfilling its obligation under WHO-sponsored FCTC protocol? India is the third largest supplier of tobacco. Every third person in India uses tobacco in some form or the other. One million deaths occur every year due to diseases directly attributable to tobacco products. Even sixth grade children are becoming victims of tobacco products.  Tobacco companies continue to make huge profits and are aggressive in their marketing strategies, they are interfering with tobacco control policy making programs.

While India may appear to be well ahead of many other signatory countries in adopting WHO/FCTC protocol in its tobacco control efforts, in reality, India does not appear to be sincere. Review:

India appears to be adopting ‘please all’ policies to keep all stakeholders happy in contravention of Guiding Principle 4 of Article 5.3 that prescribes no preferential treatment should be extended by any government to the tobacco industry that will be in conflict with tobacco control policy.  Whereas,

(1) Increase in number of growers: In 2001-02, Karnataka had 18,751 licensed tobacco growers with 25,207 barns; area permitted: 29,852 ha but actually cultivated  was 47,699 ha.  But in 2011-12, the number of tobacco farmers with licenses increased to more than 41,737 with 57,512 barns, area permitted 80,516 ha but actually cultivated was 1,18,989 ha. (Source: Tobacco Board Report for 2011-12) This resulted in more than 100 per cent increase in all areas of tobacco production. In addition, the Tobacco Board has decided to renew lapsed licenses, allow procurement of excess grown quantity as also illegally cultivated tobacco for auction in its platforms.

(2) Extension of subsidies to tobacco growers: India is extending subsidized supply of inputs, farm mechanisms, fertilizers and equipment for improvising yield and quality, improving of curing practices, extension programs, incentives to tobacco farmers, tax cuts and tax exemptions and other benefits. During 2012-13, the Tobacco Board provided subsidies to the tune of Rs.3.73 crore.  

NGOs effort – High Court order on subsidies: In this connection Cancer Patients Aid Association – An Anti-Tobacco NGO – filed a Public Interest Litigation in the High Court of Karnataka  (WP 55697/2014) demanding stoppage of State subsidies to tobacco farmers in the form of inputs like seeds, fertilisers, implements, tarpaulin etc., denying that much of subsidy to farmers who are growing foodgrains and ensuring food security of India.  The case was disposed of on 1-6-2015 – extract of High Court order portion is reproduced below:

  1. This writ petition is by an association seeking directions to the Centre and other authorities to stop extending subsidies and incentives to farmers growing tobacco as the government has entered into an international convention to eradicate consumption of tobacco.
  2. We feel that a policy decision has to be arrived at by the policy framing authorities.  The policy framing authorities again will have to interact with each other and draw a procedure.
  3. We, therefore, dispose of this writ petition by the following directions:

The departments of the central government and the state governments, in coordination with each other, shall take steps for reduction in local demand and supply of tobacco products and shall, also, consider a policy for rehabilitation of the tobacco growers and tobacco related workers, particularly, the beedi workers.  The authorities shall, also, consider the continuance of direct and indirect incentives and subsidies for production of tobacco for local consumption and, also, to tobacco farmers and tobacco related workers, in the interest of justice.”

What action has been initiated on the court order dated  is not clear? If any action has been taken, the same is not public domain.  Even though the High Court order has not laid down any time frame for parties to act, would it not be of help to the PIL holder if the High Court could initiate suo motto action  on grounds of either non-compliance or negligence on the part of the respondents, needs elucidation.  

Political contributions: During 2012-13 a tobacco company has paid more than Rs 60 million to various political parties as political contribution and this has been exhibited in its books.  When political parties receive such large donations, there is bound to be conflict of interest when it comes to laying down policies and frameworks.

Public officials with vested interests: It is found that many ministers and MPs and MLAs have financial interest in tobacco companies.  Such public officials will have a conflict interest and will be biased in their approaches when policy matters on tobacco control are discussed.  

Many MPs of Karnataka continue to encourage gullible tobacco farmers with promises of getting them support price, better facilities and amenities.  These are all clear cases of conflict of interest and it appears that they are forgetting their oath of office.

Why can’t India adopt some of the best practices of other FCTC signatories, to avoid conflict of interest?   

 – Canada’s has laid down rules and regulations for public officials during their period in office; 

–  In Kenya, Tobacco Control Act 2007 prohibits any member of Tobacco Control  Board to be affiliated to any tobacco industry;

–  In Namibia, no official of Tobacco Products Control Committee must involve in cooperation with any tobacco industry and must not have any shares in any business etc;

–  In Portugal, no member of National Scientific Tobacco Prevention Board should have any affiliation and tobacco industry cannot sponsor any activities that directly or indirectly promote a tobacco product.

Recommendations: Tobacco growers, particularly in the heartland of Virginia tobacco at Mysuru, are confused.  Due to aggressive anti-tobacco campaign by the government and NGOs that tobacco has no future and  will shortly be eradicated like polio,  farmers are changing their mindset and attitude and are ready to adopt alternate livelihood. Thousands of them are ready to surrender their tobacco curing barns but want hand holding to recover their investments.  They are looking forward for help.  In view of the above, it is felt necessary to help the tobacco farmers to come out of the habit of tobacco farming and adopt alternate crops.

The innocent and gullible farmers are caught in a vicious circle of loans and repayments and many have committed suicide in Mysuru since tobacco crop failed and they were not able to repay their loans.  It is time to tackle this core issue of cultivation and supply of raw tobacco to Tobacco Companies who are making huge profit by getting raw tobacco at cheap rates on the one hand, process and supply finished products at exorbitant rates for making huge profits by killing people who have become life time slaves of tobacco products.

They are convinced but confused.  They must be made to understand that the future of food security is in their hands and with the changing climatic scenario and global warming looming ahead, it is better to preserve, protect and conserve the soil fertility and stop growing tobacco that is a proven soil depletor.   They must be made to understand that there is life without tobacco that has been certified as a killer weed.

  • From 2016-17 crop season in pursuance of Article 47 of the Constitution for providing good health to people and with a holistic approach of protecting the health of non-smokers; to save deforestation and to protect ecology and environment :
  • – Annually, reduce 20 per cent of existing licenses and increase the license renewal fee exponentially. 
  • – Stop annual renewal of licenses and also completely ban lapsed licenses • – Ban trading of licenses – lapsed or otherwise 
  • – Annually Reduce 20 per cent of area permitted to grow tobacco 
  • – Annually reduce 20 per cent in crop size 
  • – Completely refuse to procure any excess tobacco grown over and above the quota permitted in the license 
  • Completely ban procurement of tobacco grown by unlicensed farmers 
  • Stop extending support price, liberal loans 
  • Issue strict instructions to all government and quasi-government or aided institutions to refuse accepting any/all kinds of donations, aids, equipments, machineries donated by tobacco industry 
  • Strictly implement COTPA and make empowered officials to go out of their chambers and implement the provisions without fear or favor. Fines collected must be ploughed back to tackle tobacco cessation programs in a transparent and accountable manner. 
  • In Karnataka, crores of rupees have been collected as fines for violating COTPA rules from smokers and are lying in the treasury.
  • Immediately divest all shares invested in Tobacco companies by LIC of India in contravention of guidelines 4(7) and 5.3 of COTPA
  • Strictly ensure action to prevent cross border illegal movement of wood, being used for curing tobacco in the State. 
  • Eradicate tobacco crop like polio.

– Vasanthkumar Mysoremath

(The writer is convener, Anti-tobacco Forum)

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