Clamping down

Home ministry blocks foreign funds for NGO that supported health ministry's anti-tobacco drive

The Public Health Foundation of India had been working on government programmes since 2010.

The Ministry of Home Affairs has barred the Public Health Foundation of India from receiving foreign funding by revoking its registration under the Foreign Contributions (Regulation) Act. The ministry cited the organisation’s lobbying against tobacco use as one of the reasons for the move. However, as the foundation’s officials have pointed out, it has been working with the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare on anti-tobacco programmes since 2010.

The Public Health Foundation of India is a public-private initiative established to provide technical support to the health ministry on a range of issues concerning public health, including tobacco control. The foundation has worked on several research projects and organised training workshops for health workers on how to counter tobacco consumption. It took on many of these initiatives at the ministry’s request.

In July 2015, experts from the foundation were asked to present evidence before a Parliamentary Committee on Subordinate Legislation that was reviewing pictorial health warnings on tobacco packets.

Health activists working on tobacco control have said that the home ministry’s position is appalling. “We have to interact with the government on any issue related to social development, not just tobacco control,” said Sanjay Seth from Voice of Tobacco Victims, a campaign that is putting tobacco victims at the forefront of the tobacco control movement in India. “How can they officially raise [anti-tobacco lobbying] as an issue?”

Other reasons cited by the home ministry’s for cancelling the foundation’s licence include alleged violations in the use of funds for HIV/AIDS projects, remittances to foreign countries from its Foreign Contribution Regulation Act account and failure to declare all its bank accounts to the government.

In October, the government cancelled the Foreign Contribution Regulation Act licence of the Institute of Public Health in Bengaluru and Voluntary Health Association of Assam, both which have done considerable work on tobacco control. However, the reasons for their licences being cancelled were not specifically stated.

Tobacco is one of the leading causes of cancer and non-communicable diseases around the world. Every year 9.8 lakh people in India die of a tobacco-caused disease. Research done by the Public Health Foundation of India under the directives of the government estimates that the health costs attributable to tobacco use in the year 2011 for people between the ages of 35 and 69 amounted to Rs 1,04,500 crores.

“Tobacco control activity is not a criminal activity,” said Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, cancer surgeon at Tata Memorial Hospital. “We are furthering the cause of government of India and augmenting the National Tobacco Control Programme.”

Health ministry not consulted

The home ministry does not seem to have consulted the health ministry before barring the foundation’s foreign funding. Three health ministry officials told that they had not been informed about the order and only learned about it only from newspaper articles. They said they were surprised by the home ministry’s decision.

The health ministry runs the National Tobacco Control Programme to enforce the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act and spread awareness about the harms of tobacco. The government has allocated a budget of about Rs 40 lakhs per state and Rs 47 lakhs for each of the 400 districts under the programme this financial year.

“Our stance is very clear on tobacco control,” said Dr Arun Panda, additional secretary with the health ministry, who said that the ministry will continue its work to curb tobacco consumption.

Only last year, the government made encouraging moves to curb tobacco use in the country when it mandated that pictorial warnings must cover 85% of boxes containing tobacco products, as against 40% previously. This means that after Nepal and Vanuatu, India has some of the largest pictorial warnings on tobacco packets in the world.

In November, India hosted the seventh Conference of Parties of the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control, which takes decisions necessary to promote effective tobacco control implementation. The convention encourages countries to take measures such as outlawing smoking in public and restricting advertising and sponsorship of tobacco products. Health Minister JP Nadda made a commitment at the inaugural speech of the conference to continue efforts to regulate the use of tobacco products in the country.

However, even as the conference was underway, advertisements appeared on hoarding and even on the backs of autorickshaws alleging that anti-tobacco activists has “hidden agendas” that hurt the interests of tobacco farmers and paan wallahs.

Campaign against anti-tobacco movements portraying a tobacco farmer. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal.
Campaign against anti-tobacco movements portraying a tobacco farmer. Photo credit: Shoaib Daniyal.

The action against the Public Health Foundation of India comes at a time when anti-tobacco movements in India are showing some signs of success. The National Family Health Survey showed that the percentage of men and women who use tobacco has dropped in the past decade. In 2005-’06, 57% of men used tobacco, which has dipped to 44.5% in 2015-’16. In 2005-’06, 10.8% of women used tobacco which has dipped to 6.8% in 2015-’16.

Most organisations in India that work on tobacco control rely on foreign funds with much of their money coming from the Bloomberg Initiative to Reduce Tobacco Use, which funds anti-tobacco programmes around the world. The home ministry’s crackdown on the Public Health Foundation of India has alarmed many activists working with these organisation. Seth of Voice of Tobacco Victims said that the home ministry’s move blatantly favours the tobacco industry. A faculty member of the Institute of Public Health alleged that might have been targeted because they were working effectively against tobacco control.

Claimed cancer surgeon Chaturvedi: “This move is conspiracy of the tobacco lobby to malign non-governmental organisations working on tobacco control.”

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