This is an industry full of ironies. It is one of the largest cottage industries of the country engaging millions of people at different levels — an enviable status under any circumstances. In 2007-08, the industry earned Rs 860 crore in foreign exchange while Rs 709.50 crore was paid by it as excise duty. Exports of this specific product have doubled in the past decade with more than a thousand tonnes of the product being exported to around 30 countries.
There are six million farmers supported by 20 million farm labourers producing it in about 15 states. Next comes the ‘rolling’ activity that provides employment to about 4.4 million people. These are not all. The collection of leaves and their wholesale and retail sales provide employment to another 2.2 million and 4 million people respectively.
An astonishingly high two-and-a-half crore of these workers are children who roll the maximum number of it while at the same time getting paid the lowest wages. Again, of the one million people working in this industry, about one-fourth are children who have been drafted out of sheer poverty and indebtedness of their parents to the manufacturers in a chronically-continuous manner.
Yes, we are talking about the bidi industry which is in a flourishing state today by any standards. These data have been compiled by the Central Tobacco Research Institute (CTRI). In addition to the ironies, it also raises a dilemma. That is, whether we should go for a total boycott of an industry which is providing food and shelter (even if at a minimum of wages) to so many millions of people.
Another irony is that about two-three decades back when the feature films business was running fine in the movie halls, we could witness advertisements of various brands of bidis attached to the film shows. Those were advertised without any restriction, normally attached to the liquor or cigarette products in those days. It is quite strange that the government authorities concerned did not feel that the product would assume such a mammoth shape in the long run. Now, it has almost gone out of control.
Till recently while cigarettes were targeted for restrictive usage, bidis have been escaping the net for lack of much attention. One problem with it is that it has almost become a social custom in many of our societies to smoke bidis and hookahs. Yet, the extent of use of bidis can be made out from the fact that out of the total tobacco consumption in India the share of cigarettes is just 19% while that of bidis is 53%, the rest mainly used in smokeless form like chewing tobacco.
The irony actually continues even today. Most of you must have seen that advertisement of liquor and tobacco products are banned in the mass media. But everyday we can see lots of advertisements for different brands of these products in print and electronic media. This has been possible only because of the system of ‘surrogate advertising’ which is nothing but using something else to advertise or publicize another product.
In other words, the authorities are allowing it to happen by some clever and alternative means. Yes, these advertisements do not mention the terms like whisky, rum, cigarette, bidi, gutkha, etc. But at the mere mention of those names, the image of a particular liquor or tobacco product springs up in our minds immediately. So it is high time the government authorities rethought on its strategies for fighting the problem and show some commitment in real sense of the term.
Another funny development has been the banning of smoking in feature films in the country. Fine, it is very well-meaning. But, unless and until the countless tobacco companies and shops are controlled or closed and a strict restriction be put on issuing liquor shop licence, nothing much is going to happen in the short as well as the long run.
This write-up is mainly based on the findings of an extensive study initiated by the Voluntary Health Association of India (VHAI) published in the form of a report called ‘Caught in a death trap’. Even though the study was carried out only in one bidi producing district each in West Bengal and Gujarat, it is almost a comprehensive picture of the situation prevailing throughout the country.
The study has revealed quite a few curious and interesting facts while at the same time exposing several myths. Such as, more than 800 million bidi sticks are sold annually outselling cigarettes by 8 to 1. Yet we do hardly see any conscious campaign for tackling this menace head on. The number of bidi smokers is estimated at about 100 million while accounting for the death of about six lakh people in all. It is also interesting to note that this industry has always been receiving a preferential treatment as a cottage industry which has made it possible for it to escape high taxes. The VHAI publication also nullifies a myth by which we have a general belief that smoking a bidi is less harmful than a cigarette. Studies however reveal only the contrary.
Now let us shift our attention to some fatal details of this ‘flourishing’ cottage industry. “Tobacco is one of the greatest emerging health disasters in human history. Currently, it is the second major cause of death and the single largest man-made preventable cause of disease in the world,” says VHAI chief executive Alok Mukhopadhyay. Incidentally, trade union leaders in the 1970s expressed deep concern over the fact that about half of the bidi workers died from tuberculosis or asthma.
This ‘silent’ epidemic killer is responsible for a mind-boggling ‘five million’ deaths on an average every year. And the more alarming fact is that this figure is projected to rise to ‘eight million’ lives by 2030, according to World Health Organization statistics. Eighty per cent of this is expected to be caused in the developing countries.
Another recent detailed study by the Centre for Global Health Research has projected that about 12 crore people are addicted to tobacco and one-third of this population is between 30 and 69 who smoke it on a regular basis. Significantly, it is not only the finished product that is hazardous for human health. But working with the raw materials — the green tobacco leaves — is also a major health risk as continuous exposure and handling causes various diseases.
It is not that there have been no legal efforts on the part of the state machinery to fight the menace. There are several well-meaning acts including the Bidi Workers Welfare Fund Act, 1976, Bidi Workers’ Welfare Cess. (Amendment) Act, 1976, Bidi and Cigar Workers’ (Condition of Employment) Act, 1966 etc. However, like all other acts and legal provisions of the country, these are flouted brazenly either due to so many loopholes in them or with the connivance of the authorities like police, enforcement, courts, etc.
We have a national tobacco-control initiative that includes activities such as forming of a national regulatory authority, state and district level plans to fight the problem, imparting training to school teachers, health workers, NGOs, voluntary organizations for spreading the message, employing alternative means of media like street plays, fetes, etc. Further, tobacco control cells have already been set up in six states including Assam for the purpose.
Because of the global nature of the problem, a convention called Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) has been signed by 130 nations including India. FCTC primarily aims at effecting a significant decline as well as control in the number of deaths and diseases due to tobacco-related aspects.
In the voluntary sector, VHAI’s name has to be mentioned with respect as it is spearheading a concerted effort in fighting the problem by all means with an active presence in Assam. Among other things, it is implementing an ambitious project called Partnership Against Tobacco and Action for Policies, Politics, Legislation and Execution (PAT & APPLE) under the Bloomberg Global Initiative.
This project covers five places and states including Assam. It aims at capacity-building at grassroots level, advocacy against tobacco consumption at various levels, monitoring of efforts for controlling it and preparation of reports and statements etc. from time to time. Interested persons, voluntary organizations, NGOs may approach VHAI for advice and support in this regard.
We can only hope that people are going to realize the folly and take at least some action to leave a smoke-free planet earth for our future generations in the days to come.
Dr Abhijit Bora