Meet Illahi Rasool Mazhar Khan.

Khan is a 40-year-old tobacco farmer from Belagavi district in Karnataka. He also used to chew some of the tobacco that he grew, until he got tongue cancer in 2015. He was treated at a private hospital in Sangli, a southern district in Maharashtra that neighbours Belagavi. He took a loan of Rs 40,000 for his treatment of which he has managed to pay back only Rs 5,000.

“I can barely open my mouth,” said Khan speaking at an event to launch the report of the second Global Adult Tobacco Survey in early June. “I cannot eat properly or taste food well.”

Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, a doctor and tobacco control activist, had asked Khan to speak about his personal experience as a tobacco farmer and victim of cancer caused by tobacco.

Tobacco farmers have been caught in a war between two lobbies – the anti-tobacco health groups and the pro-tobacco industry lobby. Over the past eight months, advertisements have appeared as hoardings and banners on autorickshaws depicting a tobacco farmer with folded hands. The man is supposedly making an appeal for his livelihood to be protected from the “hidden agenda” of anti-tobacco activists. Health activists allege that cigarette companies are behind the advertisement campaign that pits the livelihood of farmers against the health hazards of growing and consuming tobacco.

In April, the Home Ministry barred the Public Health Foundation of India from receiving foreign funds, citing the organisation’s lobbying against tobacco use a reason. Days after the move, the advertisement with the tobacco farmer popped up on hoardings again, this time with a message that thanked the government for taking action against NGOs. Ironically, the Public Health Foundation of India carried out its anti-tobacco campaign on the behest of the health ministry and Health Minister JP Nadda was felicitated by the World Health Organisation for the same work.

Tobacco farmers at the Global Adult Tobacco Survey launch contended that the advertisements did not represent them. Mallikarjun Jakati from the Karnataka Krushika Sangha, a farmers’ association in Karnataka, said that the advertisements were supported by big companies. “You think we have the money to give these big advertisements?” he asked.

Speaking at the conference launch, Khan the tobacco farmer spoke out against tobacco farming.

“Tobacco cultivation should be stopped,” he said. “You get more money growing it, that is true. But that money does not stay with us. The diseases caused due to tobacco, like cancer, require spending of this money. The money goes to the hospital expenses.”

After his treatment, Khan has stopped chewing tobacco and has advised his friends to stop chewing tobacco too. But he cannot stop cultivating tobacco, even though he wants to.

Compelled to grow tobacco

Khan’s family has been growing tobacco for two generations. Khan is a poor farmer and cannot raise enough initial capital needed to switch to another crop. Banks, he said, give loans to farmers only if they grow cash crops like tobacco and sugarcane.

“The banks are not interested if we grow crops other than tobacco,” he said. “The profits are less when you grow other crops. “

But in growing tobacco, Khan is not able to make enough profits to invest in pesticides, seeds and fertilisers every year.

“I have to take a loan for my initial investment every year,” he said. He explained that he takes a loan of between Rs 30,000 and Rs 50,000 every year in April-May. He has a little more than four hectares of land, of which he reserves about one hectare for tobacco, the rest for soyabean, jowar and ground nuts.

While the soya bean and jowar crops need an investment of approximately Rs 20,000, tobacco needs an investment of approximately Rs 35,000. But, the profit margins are much higher in tobacco. He claims that he sells the produce for approximately Rs 70,000, making a profit of about approximately Rs 35,000. The other crops totally earn him a profit of approximately between Rs 9000 and Rs 10,000, if the rainfall is good.

“In tobacco, the profit is assured,” said Khan. “The profits on other crops are dependent on rainfall.”

Khan grows non-flue cured Virginia tobacco, which is used for bidi and gutkha and which is not regulated by the Tobacco Board or any government organisation. Trade of this tobacco is controlled by bidi barons who are politically powerful, 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. Since there is no fixed minimum support price for non-flue cured Virginia tobacco, the prices are decided by the gutkha and bidi companies. Khan said that that it ranges from Rs 40 per kg to Rs 55 per kg.

Despite the dependence on market forces and the uncertainty of growing this crop, Khan said he has to grow tobacco because that is the only way he can procure a loan. The only other crop for which banks are ready to finance him is sugarcane. He used to grow sugarcane but not since the groundwater in his fields has been drying up.

Supporting other crops

The second Global Adults Tobacco Survey shows that tobacco use in the country has dipped significantly among people above the age of 15 from 34.6% in 2009-ˈ10 to 28.6% 2016-ˈ17.

“There is a reduction in global demand for tobacco,” said Chaturvedi. “The recent Global Adult Tobacco Survey results show that the domestic demand is reducing.”

The reduced demand for tobacco should be a signal to the agriculture department to encourage farmers to look for alternative crops. Chaturvedi said that the agriculture department needs to help farmers diversify their crop production, give them the initial money needed to grow the crop and fix a minimum support price for these alternate products.

But it needs a two-pronged approach, since despite the reduced tobacco demand the industry is still very lucrative.

“Unless we disincentivise the tobacco industry – cutting out on subsidies for fertilisers and make it more costly for tobacco to be grown – people will continue to grow tobacco,” said Seth.

Khan agreed. “The government should give us money to grow other crops,” he said.