Smoketeers Investing in Empire of Death Instead of Modi's Make in India Must Face Fire
It is said that there is no smoke without fire. But sometimes in Indian politics, a gasper can leave you gagging. If some of our fustian legislators are to be believed, there can be no fire with smoke. Three BJP Lok Sabha MPs—Shyam Charan Gupta from Uttar Pradesh, Dilip Gandhi from Maharashtra and Ram Prasad Sarmah from Assam—have lit up a devious debate over a danger the entire world has recognised. They are using a smokescreen by skipping their party leadership’s efforts to promote and propagate the good work done by Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Is it a mere coincidence that whenever the government embarks on a massive drive to market itself as India’s most successful government, some Parivar members try to stub out its reputation in the ashtray of their irresponsible behaviour by championing socially and politically incorrect causes? They seem to have all the time and research at their disposal to bring their own government under fire. They hardly realise that their calamitous claims have the potential of painting their own government as a supporter of tobacco manufacturers. Former NDA health minister Anbumani Ramadoss found banning smoking a noble cause when he claimed that his attempts to tame the tobacco lobby were thwarted by powerful and influential political leaders in the past. The huge adverse publicity over the smoke signs of Gupta, Gandhi and Sarmah has forced the Prime Minister to instruct his health minister, JP Nadda, to take remedial measures without delay.
Yet, these three MPs want to prove the entire world and medical fraternity wrong with their private knowledge on the impact of smoking on health. It has been globally proved, including in India, that excessive smoking and use of tobacco products cause lung cancer. According to reports published by numerous agencies, over 3,000 die every day in India from tobacco-related diseases. Of the 1.2 billion smokers worldwide, 300 million, or every fourth smoker, lives in India. As per hospital records, every second person who dies of cancer turns out to be a smoker. The latest findings of the reputed International Tobacco Control Project claim that unless the government takes urgent preventive measures, India would be blighted by a tobacco epidemic—by 2020, over 1.5 million would die of tobacco-related ailments. India has the highest prevalence of oral cancer on earth, with 75,000 to 80,000 new cases being reported every year, according to a finding by the Ministry of Health and National Institute of Health and Family Welfare.
But for Gupta, Gandhi and Sarmah, no indigenous evidence exists linking cancer with tobacco use. It is evident that this putrid perception arises from their business activities, since two of them are in the tobacco industry. It begs the ethical question: How did Gupta get into a parliamentary panel on subordinate legislation, which is looking into increasing the size of the pictorial warning on cigarettes and bidi packaging? He should have withdrawn on the grounds of conflict of interest. Said Sarmah brazenly: “Whether cigarette smoking causes cancer or not, there is no full proof till now. It is difficult to prove, whether it (smoking) causes cancer or not. Whether smoking tobacco is cancerous or not or whether it contains any herbal medicine also, it has to be found out. So we have kept it in the committee meeting so that doctors can come and testify as witnesses or provide chemical proof, medical proof that smoking causes cancer.” It is yet to be ascertained whether Sarmah himself is a smoker. Earlier ‘beedi’ baron and BJP MP from Allahabad, Gupta, also a member of the same parliamentary panel, made an equally laughable claim, “I can produce a lot of people in front of you who are chain smokers of beedi and till date they have had no disease, no cancer... You get diabetes due to eating sugar, rice, potatoes.”
It appears that the MPs have made a strategic move to thwart the government’s intent to notify the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Packaging and Labelling) Rules, 2008, which seeks to increase the size of the specific health warning from the current 40 per cent to 85 per cent of the principal display area. Incidentally, Gandhi also wrote to Nadda seeking deferment of the implementation of the notification, which was issued by the NDA government in 2014.
The conduct of these three MPs clearly proves that even in a party like the BJP, there are some elements for whom business interests reign supreme over political priorities and national interest. At a time when Narendra Modi and Amit Shah are fighting a vicious battle of perception, the Three Smoketeers have added an avoidable headache to the government. Though Nadda has to explain the inexplicable delay in the actual implementation of the notification finalised by his own ministry, the party could have discouraged business-minded MPs from taking up cudgels on behalf of the industry in which they are either stakeholders or are inclined to support. Their only defence against the statutory warning is that it would endanger the employment of over 40 million workers, mostly children. The gaffe is astounding in its temerity—child labour is a punishable offence in India. But they are conveniently ignorant of the fact that the economic cost of handling tobacco-related diseases in India is unaffordable to the national exchequer. According a health ministry report, the country spends over Rs 23 billion yearly on the treatment of tobacco-prompted ailments in the 35-69 year age group. India spends much less on education. Tobacco products contribute Rs 20,000 crore in excise duties every year. The beedi industry (half of Indian smokers are beedi smokers) deposit just Rs 500 crore annually. In the comparison rests the case.
But for the businessmen-turned-MPs, the truth is like the smoke of the very product they produce. They think it will vanish in the wind of their verbal power at a parliamentary forum. It is true that gutka owners and other tobacco barons enjoy huge financial clout. Each death caused by the puff of a beedi or a cigarette makes the bottom lines of their companies only healthier. They don’t mind investing in an Empire of Death instead of Modi’s ‘Make in India’ mission, which aims at transforming the country into a healthy, robust nation. Maybe it’s time to kick their butt.
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