Arun Jithendra on reducing tobacco production in India

India is the third largest tobacco producer and exporter of tobacco globally. Flue Cured Virginia (FCV) tobacco, which is used in the manufacturing of cigarettes, is one of the main varieties of tobacco grown in the country. Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka are the largest FCV tobacco growing regions. Fifty percent of FCV that is grown is utilized domestically with the rest exported to various countries across the world. FCV that is grown is promoted, marketed, and regulated by the Tobacco Board which was set up under the Ministry of Commerce and Industry (MoCI) who also organize the sale of FCV tobacco through an auction platform in these states.

FCV has been a remunerative cash crop for tobacco growers in the past, but recently the average price of FCV tobacco has gone down drastically. In Andhra Pradesh it fell from 116.06 RS/kg in 2014 to 92.95 RS/kg in 2015. This reduction has led to great distress among farmers and as a consequence several tobacco farmers have committed suicide in Andhra Pradesh allegedly due to mounting debts.

What could be the reason behind this and is this a one off situation? The answer looks like no. The prices are expected to go down further in the next year and there is only a speculation that the price might go up in the year after that. To add to this uncertainty, the government has abruptly ordered a reduction in production of tobacco in Andhra Pradesh by 52 million kgs this year. This decision has left several tobacco farmers in a limbo.

Various reasons are being cited for this situation with one of main reasons being a decrease in demand for tobacco. In fact, WHO trends predict a decrease in smoking rates globally from 22.1% in 2010 to 18.9% in 2025. Even in India, measures like larger pictorial warnings on tobacco products and a ban of the sale of loose cigarettes are proposed in the near future, which could potentially lead to fewer smokers in the country. This will have a direct impact on the number of cigarettes sold and will further bring down the demand for FCV.

Could this situation have been avoided?

India ratified the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC) in 2004 and has a mandate to shift tobacco growers to alternate crops. This mandate could have been strategically used to gradually shift the tobacco farmers to alternate crops over years which could have potentially avoided this problem. Studies have also shown that specific methods of cultivating other crops could yield higher prices compared to tobacco.

What has been the steps taken till date to implement this mandate?

From a response in Lok Sabha by Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW) on this topic we know that the MoHFW has written to the Ministries of Agriculture and Commerce to consider developing new schemes or modifying existing schemes for providing alternate crops to tobacco growers. The MoHFW organized a national consultation on the economics of tobacco in 2012 with the involvement of key stakeholders. It looked at the issue of alternate livelihoods for tobacco farmers and bidi rollers. It has also sent a reference to the Ministry of Agriculture to reconsider the “Barn Buyout Scheme” proposed by the Tobacco Board.

However, these actions have largely been on paper and there has been no significant impact at a ground level or any sign of tobacco growers shifting to alternate crops.

What does the future hold?

The root cause for this bottleneck is the conflicting mandates of MoHFW and MoCI. Expecting the MoCI to get on board with reducing tobacco production would be against its own interests and hence efforts aimed at accomplishing this seem futile in the existing circumstances. The best way out of the current situation would be to develop a platform to bring together the Ministry of Agriculture, various academic agricultural institutions, not for profit organizations, individual progressive farmers, farmer unions, and disgruntled tobacco farmers in Andhra Pradesh. The available knowledge and expertise should then be practically applied to shift tobacco growers to alternate crops. This effort should be carefully documented and should eventually lead to the development of a framework or model of implementation of shifting to alternate crops across the country where tobacco is grown.

Arun Jithendra works as an advocacy officer at the Institute of Public Health (IPH), Bengaluru. 

Competing interests: I declare that I have read and understood BMJ’s policy on declaration of interests and I have no relevant interests to declare.