A ban on gutka is supposed to be in place in Delhi, but it is found all over the place disguised as paan masala or cigarettes

Over three of the last four weeks this column has been carrying excerpts from a text about Delhi that was written in the early years of the 20 Century. The idea was to present a glimpse of the kind of detail that is available in this and other Urdu and Persian texts written during the 18th, 19th and 20th Centuries. These are texts that could become, if translated into Hindi and English and other Indian languages, a great source of information both for researchers and laypersons interested in the histories of Delhi.

We might return to this theme again sometime in the future, but meanwhile let us talk about the Delhi of here and now. Let us talk of addictions and pollutants and the way we close our eyes to things that we should be bothered and concerned about but aren’t.

The Delhi High Court acting on a plea by ‘Doctors for You’ had on August 22, 2012 given the Delhi government two weeks to decide what they proposed to do about the sale of chewing tobacco products in Delhi. The government of CM Sheila Dixit met and decided to impose, from September 11, 2012, a total ban on all kinds of chewing tobacco including gutka.

It was announced at the time that despite an annual loss on revenue account totalling more than Rs 40 crore, the government was going ahead with the ban because of the harm caused by chewable tobacco. It was said that a large number of cancers of the mouth can directly be traced to chewable forms of tobacco including gutka and it was because of this that the government had decided on this strict line of action.

All very laudable and exemplary till one read that on May 4, 2013, less than eight months from the ban, the Delhi police caught two people and recovered 2000 Kg of gutka from them. One of those caught was the manufacturer or supplier, while the other used to distribute it to retailers. It emerged during investigation that gutka was being disguised as paan masala or cigarettes.

Having read this, we took a leisurely drive through different parts of Delhi and what we saw is being presented as evidence of how freely products that have a remarkable likeness to the now banned gutka pouch can be bought and sold across almost every second paan and cigarette shop in residential areas of Delhi. One needs to note that the areas where one can buy this stuff are not confined to localities inhabited by migrant labourers alone and that the pouches are as easily available but in plush middle class and upper middle class colonies.

The government has lost Rs 40 crore in annual revenue, but the trade seems to be no worse for it. It might have actually become bigger and the poison pouch might be burning a bigger whole in the pockets of the addicts, since clandestine traders pay hafta and protection money to those who let them ply their trade. The additional costs are then transferred to the consumer.

We bring this up to foreground one simple fact, the mere enactment of a law or the passing of an order does not automatically lead to compliance and therefore one must, before passing such orders, conduct a campaign to educate the people and to put in place a mechanism that would ensure that defaulters are brought to book. In the absence of these steps all such orders get reduced to mere lip service and are tantamount to playing to the gallery.

The gutka ban is only one of the many such environment and health friendly orders and laws that have been passed in this so-called millennium city, the capital of a resurgent India and the centre of an emergent super power. One could list many to highlight the cynical disregard for probity that marks the conduct of those who seem to be in-charge of affairs, but just one more example would suffice to underscore this tendency.

In 2009 a blanket ban was imposed on plastic bags and the ban failed primarily because of three reasons. There was no clarity about what was permitted and what was not permitted, the strength of enforcement staff was woefully inadequate to enforce the order and no alternative packaging material was identified and provided in quantities sufficiently large to be accepted as a viable alternative to the all-pervasive plastic.

After a few days of media coverage and television appearances the scheme was given a quiet burial. It was resurrected two and a half years later in November 2012 and the comatose scheme is being sustained on artificial respiration with little hope of even partial recovery.

The problems the scheme faces this time around are no different than it did in its earlier incarnation; the only difference is that there is a realisation that pressure needs to be applied on the bigger stores and major traders and that small shopkeepers and hawkers should not be harassed. This is a welcome realisation and yet one sees no sign of an alternative packaging material emerging and till that happens, plastic will rule and as long as plastic is available as a convenient packaging material can gutka or gutka disguised as paan masala be effectively banned.

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