The state government is unlikely to ban manufacturing and sale of gutkha on its own in Uttar Pradesh, unless the court forces it to do so.
The state government is of the view that a ban on gutkha, apart from rendering lakhs of people jobless and depriving it of some handsome revenue, would not achieve the objective of saving people from its harmful effects, simply because the Centre’s directions seek a ban on gutkha and other food products containing tobacco but spares tobacco in itself. The ban, it is of the view, will see gutkha consumers switch over to tobacco and smoking.
Hearing a public interest litigation (PIL), the Allahabad high court had on September 19 asked the state government to file a report on October 10 stating as to what steps it had taken to enforce the Central government’s August 5, 2011 directions asking states to prohibit sale and distribution of gutkha and other food products containing tobacco as an ingredient. Though more than half a dozen states have willy nilly enforced the Centre’s directions in the interest of public health, Uttar Pradesh has been avoiding putting a ban on gutkha.
“Banning or not banning a food product in the state is our prerogative and we are inclined to the idea of not banning the sale of gutkha,” a senior official said adding, “Moreover, Central government’s 2011 directions are not binding on states. We will apprise the court of our stand leaving it to the court to issue appropriate directions in the matter.”
The government’s apprehension is that at a time when it is distributing unemployment allowance, a ban on the sale of gutkha will deprive several lakh people of direct or indirect employment. “ In Lucknow alone, at least one lakh people are earning their bread and butter from manufacturing and sale of gutkha,” claimed Balram Maurya, president of UP Pan Masala and Gutkha Vyapar Mandal.
With Uttar Pradesh being the hub of gutkha manufacturing and distribution business, the product is major source of revenue too for both the state’s commercial tax department and the Central excise department. While, UP earned more than R300 crore revenue from the sale of gutkha in 2011-12, the Central excise earned R318 crore excise duty from manufacturing of gutkha in the Lucknow zone alone comprising 17 districts during the same year.
“The volume of the gutkha business in UP can be gauged from the fact that of the total R968 crore revenue that we got from non-petroleum products by way of excise duty in 2011-12, nearly one-third, that is Rs 318 crore, came from gutkha alone in the Lucknow zone," a Central excise department official disclosed adding, “Kanpur zone is the main centre of gutkha business”.
A state government official, however, said the fear of people losing employment and the state its revenue was not the only thing making the government drag its feet on the issue. “We also sincerely feel that a ban will not achieve its stated objective because people who at present consume gutkha that contain only a small quantity of tobacco will start consuming pure tobacco or take to smoking since there will be no ban on sale of tobacco,” he argued.
Sources said the gutkha business had a very huge margin of profit. The manufacturers, they said, used poor quality and cheap betel nuts to make gutkha. They said material that was used to polish the gutkha grains contained the chemicals that were cancerous. “In UP, there is a strong lobby of gutkha manufacturers which may be pressing the government not to put a ban in place,” said a senior commercial tax department official.