DAYS AFTER the Union Home Ministry moved against Public Health Foundation of India (PHFI) for allegedly “lobbying” against tobacco and violating foreign funding norms, a giant hoarding appeared this week near Nirman Bhawan that houses the Health Ministry in the Capital. It applauded the government for taking “action against some NGOs” and demanded an audit of “recipients of foreign and government funds”.
Last November, as a conference linked to the WHO Framework Convention for Tobacco Control (FCTC) got underway in Greater Noida, scores of posters appeared behind autorickshaws in the National Capital Region. They spoke against “the hidden agenda of agencies engaged in anti-tobacco campaigns”.
Both the appeals had the same tagline: “Protect our Livelihood”. And both were issued by the Federation of All India Farmer Association (FAIFA) — a two-year-old organisation based in Andhra Pradesh’s Guntur, which describes itself as a “non-profit federation whose mission is to support the farming community in India and create a sustainable future for farmers”.
Its latest hoarding outside the Health Ministry read: “We appreciate that government has heard our appeal and taken action against some NGOs. We appeal that government should get a CAG audit done against all recipients of foreign and government funds to identify individuals who have made illegal gains and punish them. Our fellow farmers have committed suicide due to their acts.”
The FAIFA first created news last year, when it wrote to the government and Prime Minister asking for tobacco farmers to be made a party in the seventh Conference Of Parties (COP7) to FCTC at Greater Noida. That was also when those posters appeared, indirectly targeting the FCTC, which is the governing document for tobacco control the world over.
Responding to a detailed questionnaire from The Indian Express on its work, funding and links to the tobacco industry, FAIFA listed a long string of activities that also included work with oil palm growers and sugarcane. From efforts to get observer status at COP7, to raising the issue of illegal cigarettes with the Finance Minister to protesting against the withdrawal of export incentives in 2015, it claimed to have done all it could for tobacco farmers.
“FAIFA also expressed concern and met several policy makers at rural, state and central level and expressed their grievances and dangers to their livelihood due to 85 per cent graphical health warning on cigarette packets,” it said in its response.
Headed since 2016 by B V Javade Gowda, who is described as a “tobacco farmer”, FAIFA said it is currently urging the government to remove tobacco tax anomalies when it rolls out the Goods and Services Tax (GST) — tobacco is currently taxed at the highest GST slab of 28 per cent.
The organisation said it had already submitted a representation to the Finance Ministry on the new tax regime.
“GST is an opportunity to remove tax arbitrage in tobacco taxation and disincentivise illegal and contraband products which have been flooding the Indian market. GST is also an opportunity to remove discrimination among various class of tobacco farmers. There should not be any discrimination among cigarette, bidi, chewing-tobacco farmers,” it said.
However, the organisation did not respond to questions on funds and industry links.
Describing its activities, it stated: “FAIFA core leaders along with one hundred FCV (Flue Cured Verona, a type of crop) tobacco farmers from Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka and Telangana participated in a two day seminar of Asian Tobacco Forum at New Delhi, organized by the Tobacco Institute of India (TII) along with International Tobacco Growers Association (ITGA) and got briefing on COP7 being conducted in India and an action plan to be initiated. There were delegates from Indonesia, Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam who gave Presentations and shared their experiences and plight of Tobacco Farmers’ in their respective countries due to stringent regulations on Tobacco.”
The Tobacco Institute of India (TII) describes itself as a representative body of farmers, manufacturers, exporters and ancillaries of the cigarettes’ segment of the tobacco industry in India, whose members account for more than 98 per cent of the country’s domestic sales of duty-paid cigarettes.
Anti-tobacco activists have alleged that ITGA and TII are fronts to forward the interests of “big tobacco”.
“The tobacco industry is cynically exploiting the anxieties of tobacco farmers to damage the National Tobacco Control Programme and destroy public health advocates,” said PHFI president Dr K S Reddy.
“Tobacco control policies advocated by public health advocates are fully sensitive to the needs of tobacco farmers and workers finding economically viable alternate livelihoods. The Indian Health Ministry, too, has powerfully argued that case and led the efforts to include support for transitioning them to other crops and jobs in both the FCTC and in the recent COP 7 resolutions. The solution does not lie in slowing down tobacco control efforts but in speeding up governmental efforts to support movement to alternate crops and occupations,” he said.