Amid the controversy over the BJP’s Lok Sabha MP from Allahabad Shyama Charan Gupta, Parliamentary Affairs Minister M Venkaiah Naidu said on Monday that it was expected that conflicts of interest are declared in accordance with rules.
Gupta, a member of the Committee on Subordinate Legislation, has a beedi business with an annual turnover of Rs 200-250 crore. During the deliberations in the panel on the use of pictorial warnings on tobacco products, Gupta took the position that beedis have “nil” harmful effects.
On Monday, the Committee stepped outside the agenda of its meeting to discuss the pictorial warnings. Several members were learnt to have expressed concern over Gupta’s clear conflict of interest, and over statements made earlier by the chairman of the panel, Dilip Gandhi, suggesting there was no evidence that tobacco causes cancer.
Gandhi, BJP member of the Lok Sabha from Ahmednagar, had argued that no Indian study had ever shown a link between cancer and the use of tobacco, and had asked the government to put on hold the increase in the size of pictorial warnings on tobacco products from the current 40 per cent of the packet to 85 per cent.
The new pictorial warning rules, which were to be implemented from April 1, are now in abeyance. Naidu, who was responding to questions on the controversy, first told reporters that “parliamentary issues cannot be discussed here like this”, but subsequently said that “anybody who has got a conflict of interest, as per the rules of Parliament, is supposed to declare it”.
“And then the Committee and the Parliament takes care of it,” he added. Naidu did not respond when asked if the party had asked him to get Gupta to resign from the Committee.
Gupta did not attend Monday’s meeting of the Committee. But several sources who were present said members had, without naming Gupta, questioned his presence on the panel, given his business interests in tobacco.
Among the legislation that the Committee looks at is the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Act (COTPA), 2003.
“Several people including Idris Ali of Trinamool Congress and B K Chaudhary of the BJP questioned how a bidi baron could find a place on the Committee, and whether it was not illegal,” said a source.
“One of the officials present at the meeting clarified that it was indeed illegal for an MP with a conflict of interest to be sitting in judgment on a law that directly affected his financial interests. Members agreed that this should not be repeated. The chairman said that any decision would have to be taken after considering the matter,” the source said.
“Members also regretted the fact that many of their colleagues had given statements of a dubious nature in the media about tobacco,” added the source, who was present at the meeting.
The next meeting of the committee will be held in Kolkata on April 13, when it will meet the Beedi Workers’ Association of West Bengal.
The panel has been ridiculed ever since March 24, when Gandhi first told The Indian Express that there was no scientific evidence to suggest that tobacco caused cancer among Indians. Gupta then told this newspaper that beedis are “herbal”, and are not harmful.
It also emerged that the panel had spoken only to tobacco growers and manufacturers of tobacco products, and not to any health experts.
During Monday’s meeting several members are learnt to have made the point that while the loss of livelihoods in the tobacco industry was a fair point, the Committee could not gloss over the fact that thousands were dying in the country every year due to tobacco-related causes.
The Committee spent close to half an hour discussing the tobacco issue before moving on to the items listed on its agenda, the sources said. The final decision on pictorial warnings, according to Committee members, may yet take a while.