Are our members of Parliament using their parliamentary and legislative duties to boost their personal business agenda? The answer is yes, going by the latest recommendations of the committee on subordinate legislation of Lok Sabha on pictorial health warnings on tobacco products. The group of parliamentarians which decided to put on hold a major public health initiative that could potentially save several lakhs of lives, included a tobacco baron himself. Shyama Charan Gupta, member of Lok Sabha from Allahabad, is chairman and managing director of Shyam group which manufactures bidis under the brand names of Shyam and Pintu.
|Shyam group's website lists the tobacco brands owned by BJP MP Shyama Charan Gupta.|
Instead of recusing himself from the proceedings of the committee because of direct conflict of interest, Gupta made a forceful plea against the warnings and influenced the panel to take a decision favouring the tobacco industry. The Rs 350 crore-worth Shyam Group, according to its official website, manufactures 1,100 crore bidi sticks every year at its 10 units in Bihar, Jharkhand and West Bengal. Gupta’s arguments – as reproduced in the report of the panel – should put every right thinking Indian and health advocates to shame. Here are his arguments:
1. Bidis are a natural product.
2. They are very small as compared to cigarettes.
3. There is very little tobacco in each bidi.
4. The harmful effects of bidis are nil, compared to those of cigarettes and tobacco chewing.
5. There is no medical evidence that bidis cause cancer.
6. The present size of pictorial warning - 40 per cent - is sufficiently large and clear, and conveys the message unambiguously
7. The new rule of 85 per cent of horrific pictorial warning on bidi wrapper is unreasonable. Some of these very same arguments have found a place in the committee’s final report and also statements made by its chairman Dilip Kumar Mansukhlal Gandhi.
Parliamentary and government support to tobacco in India is legendary and cuts across party lines. The 15 year history of pictorial health warnings shows that at every step our politicians have opposed strong public health measures. Those opposing anti-tobacco measures have included health ministers, cabinet ministers and chief ministers. During UPA-1, health minister A Ramodass was inundated with letters from his senior cabinet colleagues against anti-tobacco steps he proposed. The Andhra Pradesh state assembly unanimously passed resolutions against pictorial warnings.
Just like the current episode in which bidi barons are deciding about health warnings on tobacco, the Group of Ministers set up by Manmohan Singh to work on pictorial warnings had pro-tobacco and pro-bidi ministers, including Praful Patel popularly known as bidi king of Vidarbha. Senior ministers in UPA have flouted norms relating to the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) by associating themselves with events and awards sponsored by tobacco companies. India is a signatory to FCTC.
Now you know which side our politicians are on: tobacco or public health?