Ministrys paper poses threat to bidi sector

Written by ASHOK B SHARMA | New Delhi, May 18 | Updated: May 20 2008, 01:22am hrs
Bidi tobacco is cultivated in around 30% of the total area under tobacco crop and its production accounts 33% of the total tobacco production. About 2,90,000 farmers grow bidi tobacco in India and around 4.4 workers are employed in production of bidis. This employment-oriented sector has become controversial with a recent paper of the Union ministry of health and family welfare entitled Bidi Smoking and Public Health Hazards.

The director of the Karnataka-based Centre for Multi-Disciplinary Development Research (CMDDR), RR Panchmukhi, health scientist of the US-based Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Trevor Woollery and SN Nayanatara of CMDDR who jointly contributed a paper on bidi economic for the report found that India alone accounts for more than 85% of the world's bidi production. Bidi is widely used in other Asian countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Nepal, Sri Lanka, Singapore and Malaysia. It is a poor man's substitute for cigarette and consists of 0.2-0.3 gram sun-cured smoking tobacco loosely packed and rolled inside a rectangular piece of dried tendu leaf and tied with a cotton thread. Tendu leaf or Diospyros melanoxylon is the main non-tobacco component of bidi.Tendu leaf is flexible, durable and widely available in Madhya Pradesh, Maharashtra, Orissa, Andhra Pradesh, Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Around 150,000 tonne of tobacco and 30,000 tonne of wrapper tendu leaves are used annually for manufacture of bidis.

In the mid-1990s, a niche overseas market, particularly in the US, was developed for flavoured bidis (strawberry, cherry, chocolate) and has become viable and profitable for foreign exchange earnings. India accounts for 85% of the world's bidi production. The average yield of bidi tobacco is 1000 kg per hectare in Karnataka , 1800 kg per hectare in Gujarat and 1300 kg per hectare in Maharashtra. Despite lower yield, Karnataka Nippani bidi tobacco is considered to be of superior quality.

In Karnataka bidi tobacco cultivation has also increased the fertility of the soil. According to an assessment done by the study shows that 13% of the bidi tobacco growers are below the poverty line, 49% are of middle income group and 38% are of high income group.

According to the Union health ministry study bidi tobacco is a Nicotiana tobacum variety, unlike the Virginia variety used in cigarettes. The quasi-governmental body, the Tobacco Board of India regulates the production and marketing of flued-cured variety (FCV) tobacco, while production of other varieties of tobacco are governed by contracts with traders and companies. The Union health ministry's reports comes at a time posing new problems to the higly employment-oriented bidi sector in the country.