A day in life of Rajnish Choudhary, 51, nodal officer of Patna’s District Tobacco Control Cell
“I lost my father to oral cancer,” says Dr Rajnish Choudhary, 51. That makes his job, as nodal officer of Patna’s District Tobacco Control Cell, somewhat personal. “It’s important to make Patna a no-smoking zone. That’s the least you can do for those who lost their dear ones to cancer from smoking and chewing tobacco,” says Choudhary, sitting in his one-room office near Sri Krishna Memorial Hall along Patna’s Gandhi Maidan.
On December 31, the Patna district administration began an intensive drive against smoking in public places. Choudhary’s team — besides him, social worker Rajesh Kumar, psychologist Naushad Iqbal and data operator Deepak Kumar — has been tasked with carrying out the drive. The team, which conducts surprise checks on public places thrice a week, is assisted by at least two armed constables.
Today, a Tuesday, the team decides to carry out the drive at Gandhi Maidan — “since there is a bus stand, cinema halls and busy market places and we are bound to catch offenders”. At 11.30 am, the team, accompanied by constables Ashwini Kumar Das and Mohammed Maqsood Alam, sets off in an SUV and parks it along the road, a few metres from their office.
As the team walks down the road to Gandhi Maidan, Choudhary explains, “We already have a law that bans smoking in public places — the Cigarette and Other Tobacco Products Act, 2003, which came into effect nation-wide in 2008. The ban is rarely enforced, but now the Patna district administration has decided to crack down.”
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‘Public places’, he says, are market places, railway stations, bus stands, parks, cinema halls, “essentially, any place outside home where people can be affected by passive smoking”.
Besides psychological counselling, the no-smoking drive includes a penal provision — those smoking in public can be fined anywhere between Rs 5 and Rs 200, “depending on the profile of the offender”. As of January 12, 201 people have been fined and Choudhary’s team has collected around Rs 10,000 in fines. On December 31, the first day of the drive, 34 people were fined in Patna.
“We are going to start with the paan stall owners today. They are supposed to display a warning, indicating that no tobacco will be sold to those under 18. But that rule is rarely implemented,” says Choudhary.
Sanjeev Kumar is the first paanwallah to get fined: Rs 50 with a warning to put up the display board. His neighbour, Mohammed Azad, is also fined. Both promise to put up the display board soon.
At 11.30 am, Choudhary’s team starts looking for those smoking in public. They don’t have to go far. Just outside Regent Cinema, where a matinee show of Dilwale is on, the team takes Arman Malik by surprise, just as the 35-year-old is about to light up. “Oh, I didn’t know about this ban. Now that I know, I will not smoke in public,” says Malik, embarrassed about the small crowd that has stopped to watch. Choudhary tells him about the law and the new drive and hands him a challan for Rs 200, the maximum amount.
Two 16-year-olds are smoking outside the cinema hall. The team walks up to them and fines them Rs 25 each. But they get more than just the receipts for the fines — they are advised to “concentrate on studies” and to “quit smoking”. The two constables join in and rebuke the boys, who vow never to smoke, “kabhi nahin”.
Barely 100 metres from the cinema hall, the team finds a group of youngsters smoking near a paan shop. From among the crowd that has built up, an RBI employee, who doesn’t want to be named, steps forward and says, “Why doesn’t the government just ban cigarettes and bidis? Why sell them and then fine people… just double standards, nothing else.”
Choudhary talks to him about the risks of smoking, but the RBI employee is not convinced. “But why sell it then?” he asks.
The team walks back to where they have parked their car and decides to tour the area in the vehicle. Social worker Rajesh Kumar looks out of the car window to spot possible violators. “Rajesh is hawk eyed. He is a key member of our team,” says Choudhary, proceeding to introduce his team.
Psychologist Naushad Iqbal’s main task is to counsel those caught smoking. Deepak, the data entry operator who travels with the team, compiles data on the spot and matches it with the counterfoils of the receipts issued.
Rajesh notices a rickshawpuller smoking. The car pulls up beside a startled Dularchand Manjhi, who is sitting comfortably on the passengers’ seat of his rickshaw, taking long puffs of his cigarette. “I bought this cigarette for Re 1. I didn’t know I couldn’t smoke here,” pleads Manjhi. Choudhary fines him Rs 5. The rickshaw puller hands him a coin, looking amused at all the attention he is getting.
One of the offenders, 30-year-old Manoj Kumar, asks Choudhary if the fine receipt is valid for the day. “Of course, not. You will be fined every time you smoke,” says Rajesh.
It is 2 pm. The team has already fined 25 people, including seven paan shop owners. It is time to change location so they move to Boring Road, near A N College.
With his cigarette delicately poised between his fingers, Arun Kumar is an easy catch. The 19-year-old is a bundle of nerves. “Fine me but please do not click photographs. I know I should not have smoked here. I am sorry,” he says, readily handing over the fine of Rs 200. An onlooker says, “This is just another way to make money for the Lalu-Nitish raj. Why don’t they just ban cigarettes? Agar bikega to log piyenge hi (if cigarettes sell, people will smoke).”
Choudhary says they have learnt to ignore these comments. “It is pointless arguing with people. The fine serves to remind people of the ban, the amount is immaterial,” says Choudhary.
Around 3.15 pm, the team drives up to the Pataliputra police station and hands over a set of blank receipts to SHO Inspector Brajesh Kumar Dubey. “We have been busy with our vehicle-checking drive for a month now. We will soon join the anti-smoking drive,” says the inspector.
On their way back to their office, the team spots three more offenders. That takes the day’s score to 35 fines. “Our monthly target is 600,” says Choudhary.