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July 31, 2002
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'Cigarette lobby is behind gutkha ban'

Oonche Log, Ooonchi Pasand, Manikchand: this jingle that perennially assaulted the senses, has also found its way into R M Dhariwal's everyday speech. The buzzwords for the chairman of the Manikchand Group of Industries were gutkha and paan masala, ever since he entered the business in 1991.

The recent decision of the Maharashtra government to ban the manufacture, storage, advertisements and sale of gutkha from August 1 is more than he can chew.

With many other states following suit, for Dhariwal - who is also the vice-president of the Zafrani Zarda and Pan Masala Manufacturers' Association - this is the toughest challenge he has faced.

Dhariwal is a disappointed man today. He says that gutkha is injurious to health only if it is consumed in excessive quantities. "Even if you have milk in excess you can suffer from an upset tummy," he philosophises.

He feels that great injustice was done to the gutkha and paan masala makers when the government banned all their products "just by a stroke the pen."

He spoke to's Senior Assistant Editor Syed Firdaus Ashraf about the affects of this ban on the gutkha industry, Excerpts:

When did you get the notification from the Maharashtra government about the ban on gutkha?

We got the notification on the ban on July 24. We are taking a note of what the government has said and a consultation is going between all gutkha producers as to what should be the course of action next.

We are seeking advice from our lawyers against the government's order and we will approach the court against this order.

But haven't the courts in Uttar Pradesh already rejected gutkha manufacturers' plea?

That was the Allahabad high court order. Moreover, that order was meant only for the Uttar Pradesh gutkha industry. The manufactures of gutkha from New Delhi have already approached the Supreme Court against that order.

Have you planned any kind of agitation?

No. We have to prove legally that our product is not bad.

You had said this decision has been taken in favour of the cigarette lobby. Can you elaborate?

The growth of the cigarette companies has been stagnant for years now. It is our assumption that only the cigarette lobby will benefit from the ban on gutkha. No other lobby stands to gain. We feel this lobby is working against us.

Earlier too there were rumours that lizards are used in the making of gutkha. We fought these rumours for eight months by inserting huge advertisements in newspapers. Till today, we have no idea how and where the rumours began. But the gutkha makers remain suspicious of the cigarette lobby.

Twenty years ago, the size of gutkha market was small. When we started to grow, we did not anticipate we would be attacked from all quarters. Let me tell you, though…we grew only because our product was superior.

Weren't some small gutkha manufacturers selling spurious goods, which made the government effect the ban speedily?

There are nearly 375 brands of gutkha in India. Nearly 100 of them are in Mumbai. Of these, seven or eight might have sold spurious goods. If that is the case, the government should have taken action against them.

However, instead the government chose to ban the entire industry. This will affect millions of lives; especially who were gainfully employed in this sector.

So what are your demands before the government?

Our demand is that the government must standardise the gutkha product. For the last five years, we have been telling the central government that they should standardise the product and allow us to carry on with our business.

Instead, they feel that ban is the only solution.

But this does not always have desired results. Take, for example, the case of the United Kingdom where the use or sale of marijuana was banned. The English government then found that people had started taking cocaine as an alternative. The UK soon withdrew the ban on marijuana.

Even liquor prohibition did not solve the problem as people did consume liquor even when it was banned.

What was the reaction of the Maharashtra Chief Minister Vilasrao Deshmukh when you met him over the ban?

We told him that millions of people will be rendered jobless. We told him that you can come and check our factories and we are not doing business by spurious means. Everything is clean in our business. We have invested millions of rupees in this trade.

He, however, refused to oblige, and said that a decision had already been taken to impose a ban on gutkha. We told him that even milk, when taken in excess, can lead to upset stomachs. The same is true of gutkha. If you consume gutkha in excess, or go to sleep with it in your mouth, it will obviously harm the body. The chief minister, however, just kept quite and didn't reply.

But doesn't gutkha have a bad influence on school and college kids?

We welcomed the government's decision when they banned selling gutkha within a range of 100 metres from schools and colleges. In fact, we also agreed to mention 'Not meant for minors' on the product. What else can we do? We cannot go and stop every schoolchild from buying it. It is the government's job to do so.

What is the turnover of gutkha companies in India?

Roughly about Rs 50 billion, annually. But we have no official record of this as most gutkha companies do not reveal their figures. Some are private limited companies, while others are proprietary concerns. They keep their numbers a secret. However, I think the total sale of gutkha, including exports, should be around Rs 50 billion a year.

On what basis do you say that 50 million people will be affected by the ban?

Nearly 3,000 people work in my company alone. And then there are so many more companies manufacturing the product. Then you have suppliers, distributors, farmers who grow tobacco, betel nut growers, millions of paanwallahs…. We feel the figure can easily run into 50 million.

What about the allegation that gutkha contains magnesium carbonate which is harmful to the health?

Magnesium carbonate, in fact, reduces the toxicity of tobacco in the gutkha. It gives a fine colour and lustre to gutkha. The government had banned magnesium carbonate in 1954 and is referring to that rule now. Magnesium carbonate is used in chewing gum, antacids, toothpaste and in drugs for diabetics. So why ban only gutkha?

What about rumours that Nationalist Congress Party President Sharad Pawar was instrumental in getting gutkha banned?

He is from Pune, which is also my area. As far as I have seen him, he has been eating tobacco since long. He eats gutkha too. I read that in some newspaper somewhere. But I have not spoken to him about this issue.

Do you think the government might reconsider its decision on the ban?

If the court gives a decision in our favour, it will be a morale booster. There may be an adverse affect on some gutkha brands, but not on gutkha manufacturers or the industry as a whole.

What surprises us is that the government has not banned the 100 per cent tobacco gutkha. Instead, what has been banned is a gutkha product, which has lesser tobacco.

I raised this question before the Maharashtra chief minister. But he did not say anything. We also told him that the researchers in United States of America have found that chewing of tobacco is much safer than smoking cigarettes.

What is the reaction in foreign countries to the products?

Our sales are growing by leaps and bounds abroad. And there has been no reaction yet on the ban.

Are you upset that the government did not give you a time limit to stop gutkha production?

My being upset will not serve any purpose. We can exhaust our current stock to some extent, but not entirely even if the government had given us time to stop the production of gutkha. I feel sad that most of our workers will be directly affected by this ban. I shall try to accommodate most of them in some other business of mine.

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