Do jobs of Assam bidi workers matter more than deaths of smokers, activists ask Jaitley | india-news | Hindustan Times
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Do jobs of Assam bidi workers matter more than deaths of smokers, activists ask Jaitley

It has been decided to put the ‘desi’ bidi in the lower 18% slab of goods and services tax compared to other forms of tobacco being placed in the highest 28% slab where cess is also applicable.

india Updated: May 14, 2017 18:36 IST
Rahul Karmakar
Assam witnesses 34,000 deaths every year due to usage of all forms of tobacco.
Assam witnesses 34,000 deaths every year due to usage of all forms of tobacco. (File Photo)

Should the death of 8,500 bidi smokers per year matter more than the job of 6,907 bidi workers in Assam?

Medical experts and health activists have asked finance minister Arun Jaitley to answer this question before putting the ‘desi’ bidi in the lower 18% slab of goods and services tax (GST) compared to other forms of tobacco being placed in the highest 28% slab where cess is also applicable.

Assam was the ninth state to ratify the GST Bill on May 11.

State finance minister Himanta Biswa Sarma said he would push for a special GST rates on certain commodities, such as Assam tea, at the GST council meeting scheduled in Srinagar on May 18-19.

This raised hopes of bidi manufacturers, citing uncertainty of “thousands of bidi workers” engaged in an “age-old tobacco-based industry”.

Pankaj Chaturvedi, professor of surgical oncology at Mumbai’s Tata Memorial Hospital and a leading activist on tobacco control, said the employment argument does not hold compared to the deaths and distress bidi causes.

“Bidi kills 5.8 lakh people in India annually, and based on the number of bidi smokers, Assam accounts for more than 8,500 of such deaths. There’s a misconception that the bidi industry is an unorganised sector and employs a large number of people. In reality, the bidi workers are victims of the industry itself,” Chaturvedi said.

A 2014 study published in British Medical Journal said Assam has 6,907 full-time bid workers, which according to the Planning Commission data, was only 0.10% of the total employment in the state.

This, health activists said, belies the importance of bidi as a livelihood in Assam.

Highlights
  • Bidi kills 5.8 lakh people in India annually
  • Assam accounts for more than 8,500 of such deaths
  • Assam has 6,907 full-time bid workers
  • In the 2011-12 fiscal, Assam earned value-added tax of Rs138 crore from tobacco but the healthcare cost due to tobacco use was Rs541 crore
  • More than 85 lakh people consume tobacco in Assam.

“Despite outselling cigarettes by a ratio of 8:1 in India and despite being a health hazard, bidi has relatively escaped regulatory controls, especially taxes, on the plea that lakhs of bid workers’ livelihood is at stake,” Sanjay Seth, of the anti-tobacco Sambandh Health Foundation, said.

“Taxation is the most effective way to reduce consumption but bidi has traditionally had very low taxes. There is a move in the GST regime not to tax bidi much, but it deserves to be put in the highest tax rate of 28% envisaged for cigarettes and other forms of tobacco,” he said.

Amal Kataki, director of Guwahati’s Dr B Borooah Cancer Institute, said the job-specific argument does not work in Assam because of the number of cancer deaths caused by bidi every year.

“Every day, we see cancers caused by bidi usage destroying lives and families. This does not justify any sort of encouragement to usage of bidis that are as dangerous as cigarettes and should be threatened equally as a demerit under the GST,” Kataki, also a patron of Voice of Tobacco Victims, said.

“I am sure our finance minister (Jaitley) wants to see a healthier Assam and will strongly support the taxing of bidi in the demerit category,” he added.

Kataki referred to a study by the ministry of health and family welfare to drive home his point. The study says that in the 2011-12 fiscal, Assam earned value-added tax of Rs138 crore from tobacco but the healthcare cost due to tobacco use was Rs541 crore.

As per the Global Adult Tobacco Survey, more than 85 lakh people consume tobacco (19.2 lakh cigarette, 11.5 lakh bidi, and 71.3 lakh smokeless tobacco users) in Assam. The state witnesses 34,000 deaths every year due to usage of all forms of tobacco.