Commerce Minister Nirmala Sitharaman has directed Tobacco Board Chairman Koothati Gopal to “proceed on leave with immediate effect” after he was found to be outside the country at a time when tobacco farmers, ridden in crisis, were taking their own lives.
“The Commerce & Industry Minister took cognizance of the absence of Tobacco Board Chairman and his visit to Italy in the midst of this crisis which shows lack of sensitivity to the farmers’ issues. The Chairman has been asked to proceed on leave with immediate effect as of 15th September until further orders,” said a ministry statement issued on Wednesday.
It said the decision was taken at a detailed review meeting held on Tuesday following “reported instance of some tobacco farmers having committed suicide on account of debt burden”.
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Gopal, a 1992 batch IAS officer from the Tamil Nadu cadre, was appointed by the previous UPA government on March 1, 2013 with a five-year tenure.
Tobacco farmers had been demanding Gopal’s ouster, insisting he should take moral responsibility for farmer suicides.
The recent crisis has been blamed on falling market for tobacco, both domestic and abroad, coupled with excessive production by country’s main producer Andhra Pradesh.
However, the Board refused to intervene in the market saying that tobacco growers were constructing barns and indulging in unauthorised crop production. It had also levied penalties to deter growers.
At the meeting, however, Sitharaman directed the board to “take immediate steps for facilitating the disposal of balance quantity of 30 million kg” by end of this month.
Of the 172 million kg produced in Andhra, 142.6 million has already been lifted for trade.
Incidentally, Gopal had received the Golden Leaf Award last October on behalf of the board from Global Tobacco Networking Forum for “most impressive public service initiatives” in extension activities, reduction of pesticide residues, introduction of good agricultural practices and introduction of e-auctions in AP and Karnataka.