Chennai, March 2nd, 2021: The Ministry of Health, Government of India, on 1.1.2021, has proposed to add several stringent amendments to the already harsh rules of the ‘Cigarettes and other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, production, Supply and Distribution) Act’, 2003, popularly known as Cigarette & Other Tobacco Products Act (COTPA). If these proposed amendments become laws within this act, the 200 year old, ‘Hand-Made in India’ Beedi industry, an indigenous cottage industry, is at risk of overnight closure, and the livelihood of over thirty million workers associated with this industry is in grave peril. Some of the key issues of these rigorous amendments are as follows :
Prohibition of printing the Brand name on the Beedi bundle, pack or carton, thus stripping a legal product of its unique and recognisable identity.
The number of Beedis hand-packed in a bundle to be mandated by the government.
Mandatory purchase of a government issued special Trade License by the smallest of village shopkeepers, street vendors and hawkers for selling Beedis.
Mandatory printing of the Date of manufacture and Maximum Retail Price even on a tiny, hand wrapped, conical pack, 85% of which is already covered by a previously mandated, dire, pictorial warning.
Over and above the existing, absolute prohibition of all forms of retail advertisement and promotion under COTPA 2003 , the proposed new amendments seek to impose even stricter measures, like the prohibition of displaying the brand, or even the product name on the warehouse notice board where it is stored, or at the shop from where it is to be sold, and the prohibition of any type of brand name or logos on the Beedi bundle, pack or carton.
In case of a failure to follow these rigorous rules, wilfully or erroneously, the amendments seek to impose severe punishments and penalties, under both the civil and the criminal codes, and range from seven year jail terms to the highest level of monetary fines.
While the Beedi industry is already fully compliant with the existing, stipulated regulations of COTPA, to be compliant with the new, harsher amendments proposed to COTPA 2003, is extremely challenging, if not impossible, for a small scale , hand-made, cottage industry. The imposition of these proposed amendments and restrictions on this totally natural, indigenous, ‘Hand-Made in India’ product will have a severe and immediate effect on the livelihoods it sustains across the remotest parts of India, where there is no viable alternative employment currently. These new provisions of COTPA may well cause the closure of the Beedi industry, and drive over 30 million workers into unemployment, forced migrations, and extreme poverty. There are eight and a half million home based Beedi rollers across India, of whom six and a half million are women. Mostly housewives, mothers and grandmothers, these multi-generational women earn their livelihood rolling beedis from home while their husbands go out to work, and their children attend school. This essential income enables them to feed, clothe and educate their children, especially daughters, who in the absence of this earning would be forced to go to work as underage domestic help or beg at street corners. Seven million women and tribal people are employed in Tendu leaf plucking in remote forested areas across several states. The cultivation and harvesting of native tobacco used in Beedis employs more than four million farmers and farm workers. Seven and a half million small shopkeepers earn their livelihood by selling Beedis in semi urban and rural areas. If the proposed amendments to COTPA were to become law, Beedi sales are certain to nose dive and fall to a much greater degree as compared to the fall in sales of machine-made Cigarettes and Chewing Tobacco, which do not provide the huge employment that the Beedi industry does. The resultant fall in Beedi production and its deeply negative impact on Beedi employment, threatens to push 30 million workers down into penury instead of helping their next generation rise up to a better life. With this in mind, Beedi Workers across India have been appealing to the Hon’ble Prime Minister to save their livelihoods by keeping Beedis out of the ambit of these new amendments to COTPA, or to have a separate legislation for them within COTPA which is sensitive to their product and situation, and distinct from the laws governing machine-made Cigarettes and Chewing Tobacco.
Worth noting too is the fact that Women Beedi rollers make Beedis at home voluntarily, and have long been regarded as an icon of ‘Atmanirbhar’ India. There is as yet no viable home-based employment alternative available to these six and a half million Beedi women rollers. This hand-made, humble product, often termed a ‘poor man’s luxury’ has not just been a quiet income provider for rural households, it has also been a silent enabler for women beedi rollers to remain financially independent, retain their self-respect and self-reliance, and help their next generation move one step closer to a better life. It is incumbent on the government to keep this unique, situational context of the Beedi industry in mind while giving balanced thought to the exigencies of public health, the sheer magnitude and scale of beedi workers’ employment, and the existential crisis that will be unleashed upon the workers’ livelihoods by the imposition of ever more stringent COTPA laws, especially in the wake of the damage already wreaked by the COVID pandemic.
City Today News