The presence of beedi baron S C Gupta, MP, in a parliamentary committee on subordinate legislation that discussed larger pictorial warnings on tobacco packs may have caused outrage over conflict of interest, but it is not just individual politicians who have engaged in the beedi business. The governments of several states including Madhya Pradesh, Orissa, Maharashtra, Gujarat and Uttar Pradesh are big players in the business.
This is how the MP State Minor Forest Produce Trading and Development Cooperative Federation describes the use of tendu leaves, the biggest minor forest produce in the country and whose sole use is in the beedi industry: “Diospyros melanoxylon (scientific name of tendu) is considered the most suitable wrapper on account of the ease with which it can be rolled… leaves of many other plans also find use as beedi wrappers in different parts of the country but the texture, flavour and workability of Diospyros leaves are unmatchable… Beedi rolling is the primary job which is very simple and can be done at any place at any time. It is a source of subsidiary occupation and supplementary income to lakhs of poor rural folk…”
This is basically the same logic that various tobacco federations and MPs representing them, including Allahabad MP Gupta who owns the Rs 200-225 crore Shyam Beedi, had told the parliamentary panel.
Since the “nationalisation” of tendu leaf collection in the 1960s-70s, state governments have tendered out lots for the collection of such leaves. Forestry being a state subject, state governments had passed their own legislation making tendu collection the job of the state in partnership with private contractors.
Madhya Pradesh, which is the biggest tendu leaf producer in the country with about 25 per cent of the national output according to state government figures, sold 16.58 lakh standard bags of tendu leaves in 2014, worth Rs 305.56 crore. By that standard, the national output would be in the range of 65 lakh standard bags with each bag equivalent to about 50,000 leaves.
According to information given by the Orissa Forest Development Corporation, the state with a total tendu (locally called kendu) leaf output of 4.5-5 quintals, which is about 20 per cent of the country’s production, is the third largest producer of tendu in the country after Madhya Pradesh and Chhattisgarh.
According to cumulative data with Forestry Statistics India, India’s total tendu output of 5,92,853 tonnes in 2002-03 was capable of making 740 billion beedis, the accepted calculation being that every tendu leaf produces one beedi.
Though output has dropped in some states such as Maharashtra, where the state government banned tendu collection in the core forest areas in the interest of conservation, state governments remain among the biggest players in the beedi trade.
There are states such as Rajasthan where output has increased. According to data published in the January 14, 2012, issue of the Economic and Political Weekly, Rajasthan extracted 1.57 lakh standard bags in 2005, which rose to 5.27 lakh standard bags in 2007.
In 2008, the report of the CAG had alleged that most of the tendu produce of Maharashtra had been claimed by Naxalites.
“In a case between Pradip Krishen and the Union of India, the petitioner had actually raised the point that when governments do not allow tribals to take away so many things from the forest, why has tendu trade persisted. That question was never addressed but the logic proffered about tendu being important for tribal livelihood does not wash. It benefits nobody but the middlemen and the end-user manufacturer. Prices have not changed since 1976 and the government has not acted on the recommendation of the Haq Committee for fixing minimum support price,” says Pranay Lal, technical officer (tobacco control) at the International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.