The Big Story: Smoke and mirrors

The intelligence wing of the home ministry appears to have unearthed another sinister plot involving the foreign hand. A note drafted last year speaks of how Bloomberg Philanthropies, run by American billionaire Michael Bloomberg, has poured funds into non-governmental organisation’s “lobbying” against tobacco and so hurting India’s economic interests, including the livelihoods of millions of people. One of their key offences was to push for bigger warning signs on cigarette packets, going against the findings of a parliamentary panel on tobacco, which included a bidi baron among its members. One report points out how the home ministry’s note, in fact, closely echoed the arguments of the tobacco lobby.

The upshot is that the home ministry has declined to renew the licences of some NGOs. Using foreign funds for lobbying, it argued, was an offence under the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act. Earlier this year, the home ministry also cracked down on the Public Health Foundation of India, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, another organisation that is apparently working stealthily against India’s interests. Ironically, the NGOs’ demand for a pictorial warning that covered 85% of the display area on cigarette packets was in line with the health ministry’s own position. Last year, the Supreme Court directed tobacco firms to implement the health ministry’s more stringent rules. Moreover, the PHFI has supported the health ministry on a range of public health initiatives, including tobacco control. Earlier, the government was also happy to be felicitated by the World Health Organisation for its anti-tobacco campaign. The home ministry’s clampdown on public health NGOs seems to contradict the health ministry’s own initiatives. In the process, a bizarre opposition has been formulated: national interest versus public health.

The home ministry’s argument that it is acting in the interests of thousands of tobacco farmers and bidi makers does not quite hold water. Activists have argued that there is no evidence to show a decrease in employment among tendu pluckers and bidi rollers. In fact, they say that the production of tendu, bidi tobacco, bidis and cigarettes have risen since 2010, when pack warnings were introduced. The decline in tobacco consumption after such campaigns, they added, is a gradual process, allowing farmers and other workers time to adjust to market changes and find alternative means of livelihood. Yet the government has done little to provide incentives to tobacco farmers to switch to other crops.

The home ministry’s exertions would actually appear to be in the interests of large tobacco firms, which have the power to pressure government, rather than poor tobacco farmers. Once again, the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act and the bogey of the foreign hand have become a useful tool to crack down on NGOs that are inconvenient to the government’s more profitable policies and ideologies.

The Big Scroll.

Menaka Rao reports on the government crackdown on non-governmental organisations that supported the health ministry’s anti=tobacco drive and why tobacco farmers need incentives to shift to other crops.

Samar Harlankar on how the home ministry is imperilling India’s health.


  1. In the Indian Express, Ila Patnaik on how the objectives of demonetisation could have been served bettter with a cost-benefit analysis.
  2. In the Hindu, MK Narayanan argues that to believe China has been deterred by India’s riposte at Doklam would be misguided.
  3. In the Economic Times, Alok Ranjan explores ways to relieve agrarian distress apart from the politically expedient method of loan waivers.


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