When Old Habits Die Hard

Updated: Jul 27 2002, 05:30am hrs
We had thought that governments in India have changed their perception towards corporate India particularly after adopting the new economic model in 1991. However, the recent decision of the Maharashtra government to ban the manufacture, sale and consumption of gutkha and pan masala makes us to think otherwise. Though one is not in favour of the production and consumption of such harmful products, the method applied to regulate the pan masala industry is neither effective nor will it serve the purpose rightly.

The Rs 2,500 crore pan masala industry is under fire for the last several years. Much before the recent announcement the Maharashtra government had put a limited ban on the sale of gutkha within 100 metres of public institutions. But it was widely flouted. Besides Maharashtra, the states of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Andhra Pradesh, and Goa have also banned the sale of these two products.

The ban on gutkha and pan masala is welcome because the evil of gutkha has percolated to every strata of society. The World Health Organisation (WHO) has stated in one of its reports that about 2,000 deaths in India are related with tobacco chewing or smoking. Moreover, the expenditure by the governments on treating tobacco-related diseases is an enormous amount for a country like India. It is Rs 27,000 crore.

But after saying this and accepting that gutkha-chewing is not a healthy habit, one is compelled to raise certain questions. First, should a Rs 2,500 crore industry which was allowed by the governments to come to existence, expand and export an enormous quantity be banned one fine morning Second, is it realistic to expect from the masses to stop chewing gutkha at the snap of a finger

The pan masala industry has not come up suddenly out of the blue. It has grown to this huge size over the past fifty years. It started as a household industry and as its volumes increased, became modernised and organised. It spent huge amounts of money on advertisement particularly on TV that attracted people to consume it in larger amount. Its consumption, in fact, became a status symbol.

With increasing volumes, it gave wide employment to the skilled and unskilled people and substantial amount of revenue to the government besides good foreign exchange earning. The Maharashtra state earns only Rs 25 crore from this industry.

Gutkha chewing is addiction as smoking is. Related to it is pan with tobacco, surti, sulfa, hukka and many more such habits. It has been observed that once a habit has been formed, it is not easy to give it up. The consumers cannot kick the habit in one day. If force is used, then the product is sold clandestinely. It can be manufactured illegally or imported from other states where the ban does not exist. The prohibition adopted by various states from time to time and in certain countries like Pakistan has shown that such policy neither stopped trading nor consumption of liquor. In fact, it gave rise to illicit distillation and manufacturing of hooch and other spirits.

The same will happen to gutkha and pan masala. In the urban areas the youth may find, because of the ban, an adventure in consuming these products. The situation is different in the vast rural hinterland. There, the consumption of these items is more a tradition than status, So it will be difficult to break the habit through a ban, especially when there is no effective mechanism for enforcing the ban.

The history of the past few centuries has shown that a ban on addictive, can never be effectively implemented by a government, howsoever powerful it may be. The best example of the incompetence and incapability of the government to implement a prohibitive order is that of the United States where prohibition was introduced in 1920. It, however, failed to stop drinking, a major social problem at that time.

The most harmful result of prohibition was the coming up of organised mafia. Chicago became the most notorious criminal centre where Al Capone headed a gang which by 1927 was earning an annual income estimated at $ 60 million. The discontentment against the prohibition was so intense that the Democratic platform for the 1932 presidential election was “Repeal prohibition” platform.

The only effective way to check this menace is through a massive awareness campaign. Much before a total ban, a wide campaign should be launched to show the cancerous effects of gutkha, sufferings at cancer hospitals, the plight of families and children of patients who are suffering.

The industry may be asked to review the ingredients and develop a relatively benign product. What is needed not a knee jerk action, but a more creative approach to the problem.

(Y C Halan is the former Resident Editor of The Financial Express, New Delhi. He can be reached at ychalan@yahoo.com)