Jaipur, The Indian market of smoked tobacco is dominated by bidis, which outsell cigarettes by 8:1 ratio. While GST rates of different products are being finalized, the burning question is whether bidi should be left out of the demerit category of GST?
It is widely known that bidi use is harmful to health, however, bidi has relatively escaped regulatory controls, especially taxes, on the plea that lacs of bidi workers’ livelihood is at stake. Sanjay Seth, a Trustee of Sambandh Health Foundation (SHF), an organization which works in tobacco control, said that “taxation is the most effective way to reduce consumption but bidi has traditionally had very low taxes on the plea that livelihood of thousands of bidi workers is at stake. In the GST regime moves are afoot to put bidi in the lower 18% slab as compared to the other forms of tobacco being put in the highest tax rate of 28% where Cess is also applicable.”
Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, Professor Surgical Oncology at Tata Memorial Hospital, Mumbai said that everyday we are seeing cancers caused by bidi usage which is destroying families and families. This does not justify any sort of encouragement to bidi usage. He said that bidis are as dangerous as cigarettes and should equally be treated as a demerit or sin good under GST.
As per a paper by Nandi et.al (2014) India had about 42 lac bidi workers. The Standing Committee on Labour of the Lok Sabha (17th Report) in 2010-11 gave a higher number of 50 lac workers involved in bidi industry. Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi pointed out that whichever figure you take – 42 lacs or 50 lacs, this is like 1 person has to die from bidi to sustain 7 or 9 miserable, under-paid bidi jobs. A study by Jha & Gupta published in the New England Journal of Medicine estimates the number of deaths by smoking as 9 lacs in India of which 5.8 lacs is due to bidi.
A 2010 study of bidi rollers in one of the bidi manufacturing states found that more than 70 percent of the workers suffered from eye, gastrointestinal and nervous problems while more than half suffered from respiratory problems. It has also been found that 90% of bidi rolling is done by women and children for wages which mostly less than the minimum wages payable and less than paid under MNREGA.
As per employment data from the Planning Commission bidi workers account for only 0.9% of the total employment in the Country whereas the healthcare costs are enormous.
Dr Pawan Singhal, Head & Neck Cancer Surgeon, SMS Hospital, Jaipur and VoTV Patron said there’s a misconception bidi industry is unorganized sector and employs a large number of people. The bidi sector is well-organized unorganized sector. In reality the bidi workers are victims of the bidi industry.
The question, he asked, is why are the states which do not have a bidi industry supporting low tax rates for bidi under GST. In Rajasthan it is estimated that there are 54,300 bidi deaths per year for only 12 thousand jobs.
Even other states such a situation exists. Assam for instance, as per the NSS data, employs only about 7,000 workers while the number of bidi deaths are 8,500 every year. Similarly 28,800 bidi deaths every year in Gujarat for about 47 thousand jobs; and 12,300 bidi deaths annually for 5 thousand jobs in Chhatisgarh, etc. There are many states where there is no bidi industry at all but thousands die annually from bidi. The Finance Ministers of these states should be pushing for bidi being put in the demerit category of GST so that the healthcare costs and misery caused by bidi usage is reduced.