The government’s increasingly tough anti-tobacco stance is at odds with its profit motive and export promotion policies. And, it is the traditional tobacco farmer who must pay the price for such ambivalence, writes soma basu
Sixty-four-year old Nipen Burman, a tobacco grower of Mekhliganj in Cooch Behar, had named his daughter Motihari after a variety of tobacco cultivated by him because that had brought him affluence. He has a small patch that he had inherited from his father and when his daughter was born, there was no paucity of loans for tobacco growers and big tobacco merchants would buy directly from them. Over the years, Nipen’s resources have dwindled with the government adopting an anti-tobacco stance. Nipen and his family have to pay a high price for cultivating tobacco, as it is more labour intensive than any other crop. His younger son had to drop out of school to help him and his wife suffers from an occupational malaise ~ green tobacco sickness ~ but Nipen doesn’t earn enough to have her treated.
A local leader in Cooch Behar town said anti-tobacco legislations meant nothing and the government had been cheating the farmers. “The government gets maximum revenue from tobacco and alcohol and would never let go of such a haul,” he said. In the financial year 2000-2001, Rs 804 crore was proposed to be spent from the budget of West Bengal on development across six districts of north Bengal. According to a news report, in this amount was included a Rs 40-crore contribution from the North Bengal Development Board. In Siliguri, the state finance minister called upon tea companies to invest in agro-industries in North Bengal, particularly in pineapple and tobacco-based enterprises. In 1998, tobacco had replaced some of the area traditionally devoted to jute and other fibre crops; coarse grains and cereals as evident from a significant increase in the aggregate area replacement index (ARI). This suggests a “potential danger” of tobacco replacing not only food crop, but also important commercial crops such as jute.
Tobacco has been a high-revenue crop and had indeed flourished with government support and attention in the past 50 years. Systematic improvement of the crop was initiated in India in 1947 with a network of nationally-coordinated research projects. Seven research centres across Chennai, Andhra Pradesh, Punjab, Bihar, Karnataka and West Bengal came up as did the Central Tobacco Research Institute, Rajahmundry in Andhra Pradesh. In addition, specific research institutes devoted to improving the quality of tobacco and marketing the crop were set up. There is also a Central Tobacco Promotion Council that sends delegations abroad to promote the export of Indian tobacco.
On the other hand, the government of India has launched a National Tobacco Control Programme (NTCP) across 42 districts of 21 states and has assigned the programme a budgetary allocation of Rs 182 crore. The Union ministry of health has launched a pilot project for developing alternatives to tobacco in collaboration with the Central Tobacco Research Institute. And, in a move that has been ratified by the Supreme Court of India, the use of plastics for packaging smokeless tobacco such as gutkha and zarda has been banned from 1 March, 2011. And yet, the Tobacco Board, under the Union ministry of commerce and industries, boasts on its website of a record export of tobacco and tobacco products during 2009-10. A review by the Tobacco Board on export of unmanufactured tobacco and tobacco products from India during 2009-10 reads: “In spite of global economic recession, Indian tobacco exports are bullish and strong. The Government of India had not fixed any specific targets for export of tobacco and tobacco products during 2009-10. The government, however, had envisaged that exports in 2009-10 in general shall grow to 180 billion USD dollars or by 30 per cent over last year. Indian exports of tobacco and tobacco products had grown by 25 per cent, far exceeding the overall growth rate envisaged by the government.”
In 2009, the Union ministry of health and family welfare sanctioned Rs 2.17 crore for the Central Tobacco Research Institute, Rajahmundhry, for a pilot project to research alternatives to bidi and smokeless tobacco for cultivation in the major tobacco-producing parts of the country ~ Nandyal in Andhra Pradesh, Anand and Dharmaj in Gujarat, Nipani in Karnataka, Vedasandur in Tamil Nadu and Dinhata in West Bengal. The three-year pilot project aimed to establish viable, sustainable alternatives to beedi and smokeless tobacco crops. Sugar cane, vegetables, garlic, maize, fruits, pepper, cotton, sweet potato were some of the alternative crops proposed. The project also aimed to look at challenges that the farmers were likely to face during the process of transition, including issues of market support and research and development.
Dr Amarnath, director of a regional station of the Central Tobacco Research Institute in Dinhata, said maize was found to be the most viable alternative and referred further questions to Dr V Krishnamurthy, the director of Central Tobacco Research Institute at Rajahmundhry. Tobacco growers of Adabari, Gosaibari, Sitaibari, Gosaihat, Okrabari and pockets of Toofangunj in Cooch Behar said they were not aware that the government was planning to replace tobacco with crops such as maize or mustard. They said they cultivated maize in sandy soil, mostly on the banks of the Mansai and Dholla rivers and rice elsewhere. But very few farmers had actually quit tobacco farming.
Just as in many other countries, tobacco in India yields higher net returns per unit of land than most other cash crops, and substantially more than food crops. There are a few niche crops that ensure similar returns, but it is estimated that the cultivation of these crops would cease to be remunerative if the total production increases. The economics of alternative crops is generally based on experiments carried out on a limited area at research stations under optimal conditions.
According to the a case study on India pertaining to issues in the global tobacco economy conducted by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more detailed research was needed on a wider scale at farmers’ field level before firm recommendations could be made about alternative crops. In general, under farmers’ field conditions, most other alternative crops are currently not as remunerative as tobacco and should tobacco farmers make the switch, they are likely to suffer economic hardship. Alternative crops also require more intensive irrigation. Farmers prefer tobacco owing to its drought resistant properties and because it is suitable for cultivation under rain-fed conditions. Other problems associated with substitution include capital locked in specialised facilities created for tobacco processing that cannot be used for other crops; the difficulties of finding substitute crops for rain-fed areas; and the dependency of millions of people on bidi rolling and tendu leaf collection.
Santa Mahato, member of a tobacco growers’ association in Dinhata, said the government only saw the negative side of tobacco cultivation. He said Motihari tobacco could be used for generating a large amount of inexpensive biomass more efficiently than most other agricultural crops. Also, that tobacco seed could be pressed to extract edible oil. “Had tobacco growers been counselled to shift their focus from leaves to seeds, there would have been no problem. A farmer wants to make a living. But it is the government that does not want to stop profiting from the highly-addictive tobacco,” Mahato said.
The Central Tobacco Research Institute is currently researching the potential of tobacco seed oil as an edible oil. It has been established that tobacco seed oil is free from toxic substances. Refined tobacco seed oil is widely used as edible oil in Bulgaria, Turkey, Tunisia and Greece, where the cultivation of tobacco is undertaken on a larger scale. Tobacco seeds contain 35 per cent oil and the oil is classified as linoleic owing to its high content of linoloeic acid (6 to 76 per cent) ~ a major fatty acid ~ when compared to other oils. Tobacco is also an excellent source of phytochemicals such as nicotine, solanesol and organic acids (malic and citric) having pharmaceutical, agricultural and industrial uses.
In the government’s search for alternative biofuel plant resources, tobacco has been largely overlooked as it is considered primarily an expensive crop grown for addicts. However, the fact remains that tobacco, which is cultivated in more than 100 countries worldwide, can not only be used to extract edible oil but is also an outstanding industrial biomass crop. Its Motihari variety can generate up to 170 tonnes per hectare of green tissues when grown for biomass production instead of commercial purposes. Moreover, like hardwood trees, tobacco can be coppiced to stimulate re-sprouting from the stump after cutting; thus, multiple biomass harvests are possible in a single year.
Mr Santa Mahato, member of a tobacco growers’ association in Dinhata, Cooch Behar said the regional station of the Central Tobacco Research Institute (CTRI) in Dinhata had made no effort to promote alternative uses of Motihari tobacco locally. “It’s been almost 15 years since the scientists at the unit last interacted with farmers or held any advocacy programme. The scientists could have, at least, shared their knowledge with the researchers of Uttar Banga Krishi Viswavidyalaya in Cooch Behar,” he said. In fact, scientists of the CTRI’s Dinhata unit are accused of selling crops such as paddy, wheat and tobacco grown on CTRI land to businessmen of their choice for a price well below the one prevailing in the market without floating any tender.
In the late 1980s, former West Bengal agriculture minister Kamal Guha, who took a tough stance against the state government’s market-driven farm policy, had campaigned for a permanent station of CTRI in Dinhata in the interest of tobacco planters. On Guha’s initiative, a national conference on tobacco cultivation was organised in Dinhata which led to the inauguration of a tobacco museum there and also accelerated research on Motihari. However, with the government eventually adopting an anti-tobacco stance, the research on crop innovation was abandoned and tobacco remained no more than a profitable raw material for boosting carcinogenic addiction.
A tobacco grower in Toofangunj, Bolai Burman, who has a two bigha patch, said that cultivation was becoming riskier by the day but traditional growers had no other alternative. Bank finance is difficult to get and it costs about Rs 8,000 to cultivate tobacco on a one-bigha plot. “The yield is not much and the selling price ranges between Rs 600 and Rs 1,100. If the government wants to stop us from cultivating tobacco, why doesn’t it give us an alternative? Must farmers always pay the price for its skewed policies?”
The Centre had allocated Rs 1,000 crore for a scheme to encourage farmers to grow medicinal plants instead of tobacco. But farmers’ groups say the government has failed to take into account the ground realities that determine the limits of agriculture. One cannot grow medicinal crops just anywhere. And, here we are talking about crop migration involving about half a million acres across the country with varying land type and utility. In Prakasam, Andhra Pradesh, farmers had switched to Bengal gram in 2000 when there was a heavy tobacco surplus but they lost a lot of money. The price of gram crashed when the government subsequently decided to impose a ban on its export. “There is no connection between government policies and our realities,” Mr Mahato said.
The Left Front that ruled West Bengal for 30 years had distanced itself from Kamal Guha’s aggressive politics and the rift had come to the fore during the 2008 Dinhata firing. It was, perhaps, only the beginning of the Left Front’s alienation from north Bengal farmers which ultimately contributed to its downfall three years later. On 5 February, 2008 police fired on a group of unarmed Forward Bloc demonstrators in Dinhata. Five persons were killed instantly and a dozen others were seriously injured. A policeman also died after being injured when pelted with stones. The demonstrators had gathered to demand proper implementation of the Mahatma Gandhi National Rural Employment Guarantee Act (MGNREGA), 2005. Against a target of 100 days of rural employment guaranteed by law, mandays generated in Cooch Behar was reportedly no more than eight in a year. That apart, widespread defalcation of MGNREGA funds had been alleged. According to data released by Cooch Behar administration, the district’s MGNREGA performance of 2010-2011 (till June, 2010) has remained more or less at the 2008 level. The number of job card holding families was 5,83,584 while average mandays per family remained as low as 11.57.
Mr D Bandyopadhyay, former secretary to the government of India, ministries of finance (revenue) and rural development, pointed out in a Mainstream article that since tobacco was a labour-intensive crop, the MGNREGA, if properly implemented, would have enhanced the wage rates in the market. Unless wages offered by tobacco cultivators are higher than the notified minimum wages, labour would not be available on call in adequate numbers and at the appropriate time. Hence, it would be in the interest of land owners to see to it that the programme was not implemented so that they could get cheap and adequate labour as and when required. As such, there is nothing to be surprised at the Cooch Behar’s dismal MGNREGA performance. On 6 February 2008, the Central Employment Guarantee Council (CEGC), constituted under Section 10 of the MGNREGA, met at Krishi Bhawan in New Delhi for reviewing the implementation of the Act. Mr Bandyopadhyay, as a CEGC member, had attended the meeting. He wrote in the article that the Union minister for rural development, in his opening address, had mentioned that strong lobbies had mushroomed in different parts of the country to scuttle the employment programme. And, that the minister had also suggested that vested interests wanted the programme to fail as it could hurt their economic and financial wellbeing. While the minister did not elaborate, the Dinhata episode substantiated his suggestions.
Farmers said that the ever-decreasing market price of tobacco had added to their woes. According to tobacco merchants, the demand for tobacco in the factories of Kolkata, Orissa and Uttar Pradesh remained low this year. In May 2011, tobacco growers of Cooch Behar demanded that their produce be bought at a proper support price. They claimed that a section of unscrupulous tobacco merchants were deliberately lowering the price of tobacco for profiteering. Some aggrieved tobacco growers had set fire to the produce that they brought to sell at the Giridhari market of Sitai block in Dinhata a couple of days before the agitation. The spokesman for the Sara Bharat Krishak O Kshetmazur Sangathan said the farmers’ anger was natural as the price of tobacco had plummeted abnormally. He demanded the state government buy tobacco from growers at a proper support price. The spokesman said the farmers were organising themselves to launch a movement to protect their interest.
The district agriculture officer for Cooch Behar, Mr Arun Ray, visited different parts of Dinhata and Sitai to study the situation. He said that he got a whiff of a plan hatched by some unscupulous tobacco merchants to bring down the price of the crop. But a tobacco merchant said many like him suffered huge losses because last year’s purchase had to be dumped at a very low price this year.
As the government keeps working at cross purposes, tobacco growers are getting desperate and tobacco merchants dissolute. The 19-year-old son of a tobacco farmer summed up the situation accurately: “Farmers are unhappy. But if they react or organise themselves, they would be branded Naxalites or Maoists or terrorists. We are hungry and the government should understand that hunger makes people adopt desperate measures.”
The writer is on the staff of The Statesman