The WHO estimates that nearly 45% of all cancer cases in Indian males and 20% in females are related to tobacco use. So, on the face of it, the government and some of its organs investing in tobacco companies would seem irreconcilable with the public health agenda’s anti-tobacco focus. That is what perhaps led to the filing of a PIL with the Bombay High Court against the Union government, the Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority of India and five state-owned—the irony underlined—life insurance companies for investing in tobacco companies, including ITC and VST Industries. Whichever way the eventual ruling in the matter goes, the problem perhaps is much larger than the government investing in tobacco businesses.
Getting the government to put its money where its mouth is should perhaps begin with ending tobacco cultivation in the country—a high-stakes move given the economics involved. Though tobacco is grown on just 0.46 million hectares of largely poor-quality soil in the country, India is the second-largest producer of tobacco by volume and remains a major exporter. The bigger question is of livelihoods—nearly 36 million Indians are dependent on tobacco income. To wean them away, the government must encourage a transition to a substitute crop. It could start with disincentivising the crop and instead give direct support for an alternative. A WHO feasibility analysis for six tobacco-growing countries (India wasn’t included) argues that while several cash-crops including banana would be a fit in terms of crop suitability for specific soil types, the challenge will be of potentially smaller market-shares and the difficulty of entry into an existing market. It highlights the Canadian experience to emphasise the role of non-farm opportunities as part of the dialogue on crop diversification. If India must move away from tobacco, it has to start with the right crop substitution strategy.