An important but unheard voice died a few days ago. While Sunita Tomar’s death did not go unnoticed, other more powerful voices with the vested interest of protecting the tobacco industry will probably silence her voice. Sunita was a 28-year-old mother of two who died due to oral cancer. Sunita was habituated to tobacco chewing and had contracted oral cancer. She became visible as the advocate, fighting tobacco usage. Few days prior to her death, Mr Dinesh Gandhi, BJP MP and the Chair of the parliamentary committee had recommended to the Government to defer its April 1 deadline to increase pictorial warnings on packets containing tobacco items from the existing 40% to 85%. The committee substantiated this decision on the grounds that it did not have any medical, chemical or material proof that tobacco consumption causes cancer in Indians. Activists were quick to cry foul and many even accused that the power of the tobacco lobby was getting stronger and was dictating policy. Despite these claims and counter claims, it is time for the Government of India to clearly state its position, as it is a signatory of the World Health Organization’s Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (WHO FCTC) that was formulated in 2003 and ratified by India in February 2004.
The WHO FCTC recognizes the substantial harm caused by tobacco use and the critical need to prevent it. Worldwide, tobacco kills approximately 6 million people and causes more than half a trillion dollars of economic damage each year. Tobacco will kill as many as 1 billion people this century if the WHO FCTC is not implemented rapidly. The real facts related to tobacco which has been used in India for centuries needs to be considered by not only the policy makers but the common citizens too. Early forms of tobacco usage were limited to chewing tobacco leaves or smoking tobacco. Today, several products made of, or containing tobacco, are available in the market. More than 4,000 different chemicals have been found in tobacco and tobacco smoke. More than 60 of these chemicals are carcinogenic and known to cause different cancers. Nicotine, one of the drugs found in tobacco is as addictive as heroin or cocaine and a person over time becomes physically and emotionally addicted to, or dependent on it. Almost 30 percent of the Indian population older than age 15 uses some form of tobacco. Men use more smoked tobacco and women are more likely to use smokeless (chewed) tobacco.
Beedis are smoked more than cigarettes and the argument that beedi smoking is not only less dangerous but also has medicinal effects made recently by another BJP MP Mr. Ram Prasad Sarmah is both false and misleading. Beedis are crushed and dried tobacco wrapped in tendu leaves and are smaller in size than the regular company-made cigarettes. So more beedis are smoked to achieve the desired feeling caused by nicotine and beedi smokers are at least at an equal risk of developing cancers as cigarette smokers. While Beedi making is a source of livelihood for many families, one also needs to be cognizant of the fact that in some families, everyone – including children – helps make these beedis. The frequent inhalation of tobacco flakes has similar effects as the actual use of the tobacco product and these families have an increased risk of lung diseases and cancers of the digestive tract too.
Tobacco usage whether it is smoked as beedies, cigars, cigarettes or through a hookah or used on other forms like dry snuff, Khaini, Gutkha, Paan Masala or Chillums have clearly documented harmful health effects – and these effects are not driven by the geography of residence and are race-neutral. Whether it is an American or an Indian using tobacco in whatever form, the harmful effects are inevitable. Smokers are at risk for mouth (oral), larynx, and lung cancers, and other serious diseases, such as heart and lung diseases, circulatory disease, and stroke. Epidemiological evidence clearly shows that mouth cancer, one of the most common cancers in India is due to the use of tobacco and quitting all types of tobacco use greatly reduces the risk for oral cancer. The best way to quit using tobacco is by not starting at all. And that is what the tobacco industry is dreading and hence is willing to spend tens of billions of dollars on advertising, promotion and sponsorship. One third of youth experimentation with tobacco occurs as a result of exposure to this intense advertising in different forms. There is enough evidence globally to show that complete bans on tobacco advertising, promotion and sponsorship decrease tobacco use. What is wanted today is for the Government of India to protect the interests and health of the average citizen by not only weaning him from using tobacco but by also bringing in more barriers for the production, processing, marketing and sales of tobacco products. And only when it shows the courage to resist all pressures and does it will Sunita’s soul rest in peace.
The financial year in India runs from the 1st of April to the 31st of March. The year usually ends with its own demands – books have to be balanced, receivables managed, creditors answered, salaries paid, reports to be written, donors to be spoken to…the list is indeed endless. And magically, things seem to be different the next morning with the day bringing along the excitement of starting afresh and all over again. For us at the Swami Vivekananda Youth Movement, the new financial year today began in much more than a refreshing manner. We had a visitor who not only came along like a breath of fresh air but also carried with him the message of friendship, peace and the spirit of togetherness. He was Ambassador Richard R Verma, the ambassador of the United States of America to India. He spent more than an hour visiting our Mysore campus and getting to know more about the Vivekananda Institute for Leadership Development, the Vivekananda Institute of Indian Studies and the Grassroots Research & Advocacy Movement. His demenaour and warm smile carried the message of peace, harmony and the desire to build positive energies for the progress of mankind in general and the peoples of both countries in particular. Bala Murthy, his brother in law and a good friend accompanied him to our center. After watching the videos on SVYM and VIIS, he spent time going around the campus and learning about our activities. He also spent time discussing different issues ranging from how SVYM was founded to the policy advocacy that we were engaged in. The icing on the cake was his interaction with our Master’s in Development Management students. He bid farewell to us after garlanding the statue of Swami Vivekananda at VLEAD. The entire team at the Mysore campus had worked overtime the last two days in order to make his visit memorable.
March 8th is observed as the International Women’s day and many organizations celebrate it in many different ways. From seminars, to newspaper articles, to public rallies and conferences, the celebrations differ but the theme is common. It is a day to remember and reflect on not only the contributions of women to society but to also explore how one can work towards a society that sees both men and women as equal partners in progress. But for me the month of March was different and special. It not only gave me the opportunity to interact with some extraordinary women, but also gave me insights in appreciating the many challenges that they still face in this journey towards equality and partnership.
A quiet revolution in India’s rural hinterland…
Early in the month, I had been to Hyderabad, Telangana State and rural areas of Andhra Pradesh visiting the offices of Tata Business Support Services and the BPO’s that they run. I had the privilege of interacting with some of their women employees both at their center in Hyderabad and at one of their rural locations in Ethakota in AP. What impressed me was the confidence with which the women spoke and interacted. Two women, Ms Malleswari and Ms Nagaveni particularly impressed me. Coming from very modest families, these women had joined the BPO many years ago. Their growth was not just in their careers, but was evident in the way they communicated, interacted and shared their stories. Marriage was not a deterrent and both of them continued in their jobs after finding understanding grooms. The difference that this job in such an interior rural location has made to their lives is something that is seen to be believed. What is truly impressive is the faith and trust that this Tata Company had in them and their capacities. It does take a lot of courage of conviction to set up a business entity in India’s rural hinterland. What left me wonder struck was also the fact that this center was not only profitable but also had very low error rates in their business transactions. I have repeatedly written about how rural India needs to jump onto the economic bandwagon that is urban driven and here was a real-life example of it not only working but also making a difference in the lives of hundreds of young men and women.
The next week was my visit to Tata Steel in Jamshedpur. Though the journey from Mysore was long, I was happy that I would be visiting a location that Mr J N Tata had conceived. The treat for me was to see a copy of the original letter written by J N Tata to Swami Vivekananda asking him to head the Indian Institute of Science. Though J N Tata had passed away before the first batch of steel could roll out of this mill, his dream of a world class Industry with a humane outlook towards all its stakeholders was made into a reality by his son Sir Dorabji. I was here to visit the social activities that the Tata Steel undertake in the area.
From a school dropout to a Education minister…
My visit to a rural bridge school stands out from amongst the many locations that I could visit. It was here that I met with 11-year-old Duli Besra, a Santhali tribal girl who impressed me with the quiet confidence with which she was engaging me in a conversation in English. And to think that this girl could hardly speak any Hindi just 6 months ago was indeed difficult to believe, but reflected the hard work of the 5 teachers, most of whom were young and educated tribal women from the same area. This little girl was telling me how she was one amongst 5 siblings, how she had to drop out of school in the second grade, and the problems faced by her family because of her alcoholic father. Her life after she grew up would have been no different from that of her mother but for the fact that the outreach staff of the CSR team of Tata Steel touched her life. They motivated her family to admit her to the residential bridge school for tribal school dropouts. She proudly told me that she was the ‘Education Minister’ for her school and was principally mandated to ensure that all the children learnt well. In her own sweet way she shared her dream of wanting to become a ‘wildlife biologist’ after she grew up. I was wondering if we would have noticed it or batted a eyelid if a urban child coming from a well endowed and educated family had said this; but for a child of the forest with no inter-generational equity or social capital to dream of, this was no mean feat. This clearly reflected the years of hard work that hundreds of committed people from Tata Steel had put in.
From Self Help to making a business of development…
I also met with around 20 women members of a federation of self help groups. These women were proudly sharing with me the fact that they were second-generation members of their groups and how their mother-in-laws would object if they did not participate and continue the tradition of self help and micro finance. One women whispered how she was now earning not less than Rs 15000 per month and how her children were being educated in a well known local private school. I asked another woman if her husband objected to her participating in the Groups activities and she very emphatically told me that he wouldn’t dare to, as she was now the principal wage earner for her family. They also explained how they had taken a contract from Tata Steel to develop 49 farm ponds in the area. These tribal women with hardly any formal schooling were explaining to me concepts that needed knowledge of basic engineering, measurements, costing, accounting and business management. This was empowered human capital that had also built up enormous social capital through the Self Help movement and the accumulated capital of the Tata’s. The economic consequences that they were reaping is astounding. The had now gone beyond making the traditional masala powders, papads and pickles (which they continue to do so) and had moved into the ‘business of development’ itself.
This opportunity to be a witness and to listen to the inspiring narratives of such extraordinary women was possibly the best way that i could celebrate not just the International Women’s day, but of womanhood in action itself. Now, i can see hope for not just Indian society, but for the world at large.
This incident happened a few days ago. I was walking towards the Ramakrishna Ashram in Mysore and was waiting at a streetlight to cross the road. Being a 4-way junction, the wait seemed to be a long one. It was then that I noticed a middle-aged woman selling bananas by the street corner. Working with street vendors for a few years now, I had learnt that life was never easy for them. From meager profits, to haggling customers to corrupt civic and police officials – they had to deal with them all on an everyday basis. My intelligent guess was that this woman would possibly earn not more than Rs 40-50 as profits on a good day. Validating my thoughts, I found one customer haggling as though his entire future depended on it. And all this for an extra banana that he thought was his rightful due. Around the same time, I found a 4-5 year old girl standing and sobbing by the way side. She seemed to be hardly noticed by either the tens of pedestrians or the innumerable vehicles driving by. On hearing her sobs, this street vendor spontaneously reached out to her to inquire if she was lost and crying for her mother. The little girl pointed to the construction across the street and mentioned that her mother worked there. Her sobbing was due to her unbearable hunger and that her mother had nothing to give her. Without batting an eyelid, I found this women street-vendor tear out a couple of bananas and thrust them into the child’s hands. And then quietly returned back to her business…Not being able to contain myself, I asked her about what she had done…In her own characteristic way, she simply said that here was a poor hungry soul in need of help and she just did it. That was it – neither complex theories of development nor any high spiritual explanation. Just a simple humane response from one human being to another.
Finding her vending so close to the Ramakrishna Ashram, I enquired whether she had heard of either Sri Ramakrishna or Swami Vivekananda. While both these names meant nothing to her, here she was living their philosophy in the only way she understood it. Sri Ramakrishna’s exhortation of ‘Shiva Jnane, Jeeva Seva’ (Knowledge of God through the service of man) to his disciples came effortlessly to her. Swami Vivekananda had proclaimed ‘Darida narayano bhava’ (the poor are my gods) and here was this poor woman worshiping the only god she knew. It is no exaggeration to say that the poor are the ones who understand poverty and hunger the best. While the rest of us are more adept at intellectualizing and spending endless hours in debating poverty and hunger, here was this noble soul living the message of Swami Vivekananda without having heard of him even. This was truly Swami Vivekananda and his message in action.