Check Smoking Through Awareness

beediSmoking tobacco products is a dangerous to the health of individuals and society. But for the business it is good profit. This menace can be evicted only through awareness not by imposing more taxes. In a poor country like India beedi smoking is time pass and vending their frustration out. It can be checkmated through publicity and more proactive awareness creation by the governement.

Swaminathan Aiyar writes in The Times of India (21 June 2009)

Dear Pranab Mukherjee,

You have a big budget problem. Your fiscal deficit is huge, but you cannot easily increase taxes or cut spending during a recession. One easy way out will be to raise taxes yet again on cigarettes. Tobacco causes cancer, so every tax increase can be portrayed as a life-saving measure.

Yet, this is rank hypocrisy. Indians consume an estimated one trillion beedis per year, against only 106 billion cigarettes. So, taxes on cigarettes leave out 90% of smokers. You must equalise taxes on beedis and cigarettes. If you equalise at the rate for non-filter micro cigarettes, you will get an additional Rs 15,000 crore per year. And if you equate at the standard filter cigarette rate, you will get an additional Rs 80,000 crore a year. A bonanza!

Why have finance ministers over the years not done this? Because the beedi is the poor man’s smoke, and the beedi industry employs millions. Yet, these are horrifying, cruel reasons for tax concessions for proven killers. Yes, the poor buy cheap products, but is a cheap killer like the beedi the right way to help the poor? Surely, they will gain if beedis are made more expensive, obliging them to reduce or stop smoking, and improving their health?

Dr Prabhat Jha of Toronto University estimates that 930,000 Indians will die in 2010 of tobacco-related causes (respiratory, vascular and neoplastic). Deaths from these causes are increased two to three times by smoking.

Dr Jha says that smoking even a few beedis per day is harmful. Nicotine is addictive, but mildly so: people give up smoking when high cost and social inconvenience provide proper incentives. In the US and Europe, 30% of all smokers have given up the habit. But in India only 2% of beedi smokers ever give it up, because costs and social pressures are low.

The beedi industry employs millions. Yet, Pranab babu, can you with a straight face justify employing millions in order to kill millions of others, slowly and painfully? If indeed you regard labour-intensive killing as an industry to be encouraged with concessional taxation, please bring Dawood Ibrahim back to India and make him an adviser in the Ministry of Industrial Development. He knows a thing or two about labour-intensive ways of killing people slowly with lots of pain.

A recent study by Emil Sunley, an IMF consultant, estimates that beedis account for 77% of all tobacco consumption but only 5% of excise taxes. His data refer mostly to 2007-08, but the dimensions of the problem have not changed materially since. Sunley says that the tax per thousand is Rs 14 for hand-made beedis and Rs 26 for machine-made ones. For cigarettes, the tax per thousand varies from Rs 168 for micro non-filter cigarettes to Rs 819 for the standard 70 mm filter cigarette and a whopping Rs 2,163 for filter cigarettes longer than 85 mm.

Even the low duty on beedis is largely evaded by cottage industries producing mainly unbranded beedis. Only 360 billion of the estimated trillion beedis produced actually pay taxes. Sunley suggests banning unbranded beedis, which hardly ever pay tax. Tobacco curers, blenders and processors should be obliged to report to whom they sell tobacco, helping check evasion by small or undeclared beedi producers

Next, the tax on hand-made and machine-made beedis should be equalized. Technology will then shift production gradually towards machine-made production in factories, where tax collection is easier and evasion more difficult. Some producers split their operations into several small companies to avoid taxes, and this can be countered by clubbing together all companies and factories of a group for tax purposes.

Next, the government should equate the tax on cigarettes and beedis. Obviously this cannot be done in one go. But the government should announce a phased programme to equate taxes at the minimum cigarette level over three years, raising beedi taxes every six months to gradually reach the minimum cigarette tax level of Rs 168 per thousand. At this level, the exchequer should get an additional Rs 15,000 crore in tax. Then over the next few years all cigarette taxes and beedi taxes can be raised to the level levied on standard 70 mm filter cigarettes, which in 2007-08 was Rs 819 per thousand. This should increase tax revenue by around Rs 80,000 crore.

Finally, Pranab babu, beedi packets should have the same pictorial health warning that is now mandatory for cigarettes. You can improve the health of poor Indians as well as government finances by treating cigarettes and beedis as hazards that should be taxed alike.

Environment and the Minister

Green freaks are aplenty. The world needs a common sense among the common people to save the environment. More than people’s energy the government needs to take active interest in sorting out this problem.

Jay Mazoomdar writes in The Times of India (13 June 2009)

There are, as an old joke goes, two shades of green activists: the rabid and the romantic. Most good jokes draw from reality. I reaffirmed this

conviction by observing a few green stalwarts over the past few weeks. Nobody in India, I was told, bothers about conservation more than the Gandhis. Remember, it was Indira who banned hunting almost 40 years back. Remember, it was Rajiv who always had time for the lowly forest staff. And remember, it’s Rahul who set up a tiger caucus with young politicians and got bullied by tribal activists.

The Congress has crossed the 200-mark on its own. More, Rahul Gandhi has earned for himself a say in matters of governance and policies. I could imagine the sense of vindication among these green stalwarts when the Congress freed the ministry of environment and forests (MoEF) from the clutches of allies and put an ‘able minister’ in charge.

Then came Jairam Ramesh’s first media statement about the prime minister asking him not to let the MoEF become an anti-development bottleneck. At once, there were war cries. How could we have expected better from a PM who tried to steamroll India’s national environment policy at the World Bank’s prompting? How dare they advocate summary green clearance for all development projects?

But can anyone deny that the current environmental clearance procedure is highly arbitrary, delaying decisions while leaving room for manipulation? After all, less than 1 per cent of all proposals put up for green clearance has been turned down so far. Was Ramesh, perhaps, talking of streamlining the process? Surprisingly, few were willing to give the minister the benefit of the doubt.

Ramesh’s biggest challenge will be to fight the irrational the suspicion of the rabid and the expectation of the romantic. Some will always see the shadow of what they call the PM’s growth-rush behind all his moves. Others will seek magical inspiration from the young Gandhi. Some will always suspect foul play each time Ramesh’s ministry clears forest land for development. Others will expect 33 per cent forest cover and at least 5,000 tigers by the end of his term.

Frankly, should we have a blanket policy for development projects inside protected areas? What we need is objective cost-benefit comparatives for each project proposal so that informed decisions are possible. Even a few acres of a pristine forest are much more valuable than many hectares of an already degraded stretch. A road that can well do with a few kilometres of detour may not be allowed inside a sanctuary, but there might be logic in allowing the lifeline of a highway through a marginal forest area.

We cannot reverse the conservation clock just by wishful thinking. Those who hit the streets, demanding 5,000 wild tigers in the next five years, should understand that we do not have viable forests to hold even 2,000 tigers. And anyone who dreams of 33 per cent forest cover should start promoting kitchen gardens in each and every service balcony.

Performing isn’t easy in such an atmosphere of irrationality, particularly when a minister is briefed by a bunch of bureaucrats and experts mostly incapable of any scientific or even practical input. Our conservation paradigm is so outdated and unimaginative that we have reduced the whole issue to an emotional debate of growth-versus-gpic_environment01reen. But no attempt to conserve our natural heritage will work unless it is backed by scientific decisions and economic incentives.

There are at least five sets of files on Ramesh’s table that cannot wait any longer. One, the proposal to bifurcate the MoEF one secretariat for environment and another for forests and wildlife is pending since 2006 even after an assurance from the prime minister’s office. Two, a blueprint is needed to shake up the Indian forest service by creating a short-service wildlife sub-cadre, with special training and perks, for our national parks and sanctuaries. Three, field-level staff vacancies need to be filled up across the country. There is enough money lying with the Centre but our federal structure does not allow the Centre to hire or pay state government employees.

Four, for quick rehabilitation of villages out of “core critical forests”, the ministry needs to tap funds available under various central government schemes and ensure proper coordination among the district administration, forest authorities and credible NGOs. Five, an achievable national action plan for climate security is needed so that India can underline its leadership role in the climate debate in the run-up to the Copenhagen summit.

In the long term, Ramesh’s real test will be to find solutions to the three most critical issues plaguing conservation: habitat loss, man-animal conflict and poaching. The present practices to combat these problems are dangerously naive and counterproductive. We maintain forest boundaries for habitat security instead of creating buffer and connectivity for multiple land use. We create ‘maneaters’ by arbitrarily capturing and releasing so-called problem animals. We fail to guard our reserves against poaching but do not try to rehabilitate the handful of poaching communities.

It’s time our conservation outlook disowned the deadwood and forced a shift towards scientific and economic strategies. Ramesh has his task cut out.

Indeed the new environment minister has his plate full. One needs to wait and watch whether he will perform genuinely or not.