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She fired the smoking gun

Monamma Kokkad started it all with her 1998 PIL on smoking in public, reports Sujit Kumar.

india Updated: Oct 13, 2008 02:09 IST
Sujit Kumar

For 28 years, college lecturer Monamma Kokkad commuted between Kottayam and Ernakulam (in Kerala) every day. She enjoyed the journey and made many friends along the way but had one grouse: she couldn't stand it when people smoked in the general compartment. She usually suffered in silence but sometimes spoke up. “But the standard response was that it was their right to smoke,” recalls Kokkad. “And I thought, what about the rights of those who didn't smoke?”

So, in July 1998, Kokkad filed a public interest litigation in the Kerala High Court, demanding a ban on smoking in public places. She made her argument and also attached the results of a survey done around that time in Kerala which found that 75 per cent of lung cancer patients were smokers. “But I had little hope of a favourable verdict,” admits Kokkad.

Exactly one year later, she was dragged out of her classroom by reporters who told her that Justice Narayana Kurup had just banned smoking in public places in Kerala. The verdict, the first of its kind in India, made her a minor celebrity. And made her plunge into public causes in a big way: she became a member of the state women's commission.

Did the ban work? “Initially, the police caught offenders. After a while, they simply looked the other way,” she says. “But people began to see cigarette smoking as shameful; there was huge awareness.”

Kokkad believes the national ban might go the same way. “They will try to enforce the ban but things will soon go back to square one,” she predicts. “The reason the government won't be serious about the ban is because it earns so much from cigarette sales.”