Sumitra Hooda Pednekar lost her husband to tobacco addiction. She has taken to court a vital question: should a state-run life insurance firm like LIC invest in tobacco firms?
It’s a question that needed asking. Is it kosher for a state (or a state-run enterprise) to invest in profitable tobacco companies when it professes an anti-tobacco stance, educates people against tobacco use, and ends up losing productive citizens to cancer and tobacco-related illnesses? Sumitra Hooda Pednekar, who lost her husband Satish Pednekar, a former Maharashtra minister, to cancer caused by tobacco use has since become a committed campaigner against tobacco use in any form. And she is the lead petitioner who (along with six others) has filed a PIL in the Bombay high court asking whether state-run insurer Life Insurance Corporation of India (LIC) can invest in shares of tobacco companies like ITC and VST. The others, equally committed, are two members of Tata Trusts, which runs cancer hospitals, three eminent doctors, and a BJP MLA of Maharashtra.
But this isn’t the only proactive move she has made against the habit-forming substance and those who peddle it. In 2012, in response to a ban on gutka sales, manufacturers had started issuing ads in newspapers, grumbling over the ban and claiming that gutka was less harmful than cigarettes. The ads even said that 14 states considered cigarettes were healthy! And invoking victimhood, they said that several small-scale gutka manufacturers were being ruined by the efforts of cigarette companies. Sumitra countered with a letter to the editors of the newspapers that carried those ads: loaded more with evidence and reason than emotion, it exposed the hollowness of the gutka manufacturers claims.
She campaigns at a personal level too: she is known to approach young people who are smoking or otherwise using tobacco to tell them of the health risks the habit entails – something that she knows too well.
“My husband started off as a chain smoker. When he gave up smoking, he started chewing tobacco – gutka and tobacco-laced paan. He always thought he would give up tobacco one day,” says the 60-year-old Sumitra, dressed in off-white cotton palazzos and a long, printed kurta, in her Andheri apartment. That was not to be. Satish Pednekar, a former Maharashtra minister of home and labour, died of throat cancer in 2011. This was a man who had a brush once with cancer and was believed to have survived it. “My husband always had a sensitive throat and would keep coughing. I’d tell him, ‘Let’s get it checked, but he’d brush it off, saying everything is fine...’ He had come out of cancer and we thought everything was fine. Suddenly, after three-four months, he had secondary infection in the liver. He was in stage IV. In three months, he passed away. His death shook me,” she says.
The time she spent caring for him in hospitals exposed her to the trauma cancer patients and their families undergo. Although her husband was in the special ward, she would visit the general wards to see what was happening. “What I saw was pathetic,” she says. “Fungus-infested feeding tubes, cancer patients housed chock-a-block, their families crammed in the wards and squatting outside as well – all this left me alarmed. I also saw many cancer-afflicted children, their faces distorted, mouths and tongues damaged, unable to speak. It was horrifying.” She remembers a young cricketer, 24-25 years old, who said he’d only smoked for a year or so but was downed by cancer. No one is spared, whether one is active or not, she concludes, warning women in particular that smoking affects reproductive systems very badly.
Sumitra’s grandfather and father were smokers, and so was an uncle who died of throat cancer. Her grandfather, the vice-principal of the British-run King George’s Royal Indian Military School in Ajmer (now the Rashtriya Military School), and was known as “hookahwala sahib”. He died of throat cancer. Her army officer father was a chain smoker who gave up the habit. Her own experience with smoking was not so good so she quit. “With all my friends smoking, I was fascinated by the sight of a cigarette held between long fingers with painted nails. I tried smoking a couple of times but gave up because I didn’t like the taste – also, I burnt my lips,” she says. Peer pressure and the projection of the habit as stylish – whether as a signifier of rebellion, cool, machismo or as many attributes as people would care to choose for themselves – are of course the reasons people take up smoking in the first place, only to be unable to quit even if they try. “Not every smoker has or gets cancer, but for a smoker, the chances of getting cancer are high indeed. People generally quit smoking after getting cancer, not before,” she says. “Once you are addicted, you do not quit cigarettes – they quit you one day.”
Sumitra’s first foray into a public campaign against tobacco began when Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi of the Tata Memorial Hospital, who was treating her husband, started the Voice of Tobacco Victims (VoV) campaign in 2009. In 2012, she was awarded its first ‘Best Care Giver Award’. The VoV, of which many doctors are members, encourages cancer victims and those who have been left bereft by the disease taking away loved ones to confront leaders and demand that they enact and implement strong tobacco control laws. “This appealed to me, because not only the patient, his survivors are equal sufferers,” she says. She would take part in the campaign activities, attend seminars, participate in sensitisation workshops and programmes in the Maharashtra assembly, write to ministries on cancer warnings, VAT increases, and bans on gutka and chewing tobacco. Today, Dr Chaturvedi is one of the co-petitioners in Sumitra’s case against LIC investing in tobacco companies.
Warning bells about insurers rang in the campaigners’ minds when cases came up of firms not warning policy-buyers that they would not be compensated if they should contract cancer. From there on, they caught on to the fact that LIC invests in tobacco companies, which happen to be extremely profitable. The questionable ethics of the practice piqued them, and they decided to demand explanations. With the state being such a large entity, quite often one wing doesn’t know what the other is up to, and in the absence of a unified policy, the LIC (which functions under the finance ministry) continues to earn through investment in tobacco while the health ministry cries itself hoarse warning of the ill-effects of tobacco use. (Despite repeated attemps, Governance Now could not get LIC’s comments.)
“There was no response from ministries. To have our voice heard, we thought of going to court and so, people of different backgrounds got together. Our basic aim is to convince the court and obtain an order on disinvestment of government agencies in ITC. This is the minimum we expect. It will send out a positive message,” she says. With no lawyer willing to take up the case because of the strong tobacco lobby, they were worried if their case would be taken up at all. Finally, MZM Legal, a Mumbai-based practice, took up their case. “Thank God, the judiciary is still free and open and not under pressure from anyone. If it is the livelihood of tobacco companies, then Dawood also must be given a licence, because drugs are the livelihood of underworld. At any cost you cannot trade tobacco. As a government agency, LIC should not trade tobacco,” she says.
There’s an ironic spin to applying a line from a cigarette ad of the 1960-70s, aimed at successful women – “You’ve come a long way, baby!” – to Sumitra. But there’s some resonance there, coming as she does from Assan, a village in Rohtak district, Haryana, a state notorious for its skewed sex ratio. She was rebellious right from childhood. Much against the wishes of her orthodox grandfather, she brought home a pair of ghunghroos to learn kathak while in school. Her grandfather threw them out. But she kept up her interest in dance and the arts; in school, she was the first girl ever to take part in the mono-acting competition. At the Banasthali Vidyapeeth in Rajasthan, where she later studied, she learnt horse-riding.
She was also an NCC cadet and completed courses for all three certificates that the corps offers. She learnt to use parachutes, and participated in two Republic Day parades. Later, she took lessons for a private pilot’s licence on a government scholarship at Karnal Flying Club, but gave up midway as her legs were too short to allow her to qualify for flying. “I was a rebel and bold and didn’t confirm to societal boundaries. In college, I majored in dance,” she says. That was her way of triumphing over the suppression of a childhood dream. In marriage too, she made her own choice: as a general secretary of the National Students Union of India (NSUI), she met her future husband, who was then a member of the Youth Congress. They married much later, though, in 1988.
Sumitra Pednekar, as an NCC cadet, receiving para wing after successful completion of jumps and training from Major General HK Bakshi, director-general of NCC, in 1976 (Photo courtesy: Sumitra Hooda Pednekar)
After graduation, she became the first Haryanvi announcer on All India Radio, simultaneously working for Doordarshan too. Her programme was a hit; besides, she joined a University of Wisconsin team that was making a film on rural India, serving as their translator and assistant director. It went on to win the Blue Ribbon Award. Later, she was cast by renowned director S Sukhdev in a documentary on Indian Potash Ltd. When he passed away, the project went to Shyam Benegal, with whom she ended up doing three films. Later, she set up a cooperative society with some friends, took a government loan and produced the first Haryanvi film. After that, ‘Sanjhi’, a film on Haryana culture followed. She also acted in two Haryanvi films.
Sumitra with her husband Satish Pednekar; images from films she has worked in or produced (Photo courtesy: Sumitra Hooda Pednekar)
A champion of social concerns of her times, Pednekar is a strong advocate for equal rights for women. “There are only two castes – men and women. While a man thinks woman are inferior, man can break, but a woman will never break. Girls must be fearless. Actually education plays a big part. My family was educated and progressive, but the attitude of society was not,” she says. She recalls how there was an attempt to kidnap her when she was in college; she however had the presence of mind and the strength to fend off her assailants, throw a brick at them, and raise an alarm till they fled. “Nothing has ever scared me.”
Sumitra Hooda Pednekar with prime minister Indira Gandhi after participating in the Republic Day parade (Photo courtesy: Sumitra Hooda Pednekar)
Sumitra says her husband was quite progressive, and that helped. When they were expecting their first child, the family yearned to have a son and there were suggestions that she go to the UK for pre-natal diagnostics. However, the couple resisted it. “My husband was a very good soul,” she says. “He loved me so much that he became very possessive. He had put a condition that I will not work. This was a dilemma and very frustrating for me, because I was used to doing many different things. I was restless.” But she kept venturing into little things like supplying vegetables to hospitals and canteens. Later, she supplied tussar salwar-kameezes to Shoppers Stop till it shut down after the Mumbai serial blasts in 1993. She then marketed international cosmetics and healthcare brands, becoming their top recruiter and trainer.
Life for her has changed tremendously after her husband passed away. She says her husband had been in the construction business, but she has been unable to benefit much from it and feels shortchanged by his partners. Some property investments have however turned out right, and she is comfortably off with some rental income and the money the cosmetics business brings in. She is happy that her children have been successful. The elder daughter, Bhumi, has won many awards for her role in her debut film ‘Dum Lagake Haisa’, and younger daughter Samiksha is studying law in Delhi. “We have both inherited her go-getter traits. Our mother is very supportive and does not treat us any different from boys. She is the force and the reason behind everything we do,” says Samiksha, and Bhumi describes their mother as “socially aware, evolved, dynamic and inspiring”.
In the late 1980 and 1990s, as part of her cosmetics and healthcare business, Sumitra motivated some 1,500-2,000 women to take up sales, in the process turning them into leaders who motivated other women. This was at a time when the number of working women was rather small. “Even when a woman earned Rs 1,000 extra per month, it gave her extra power,” she says. “Most of these women I motivated are still working.”
Next on her agenda is again a women-related issue: that of housing colonies in Mumbai not letting young, single women rent houses. Sometimes, these women are forced to get fake marriage certificates. The problem is that housing societies make up their own rules barring house owners from renting them to single men and women. “On the one hand we say our girls are precious, we should educate them and save them, and on the other hand we are throwing them to the wolves,” she says. “A girl I know was staying alone in a building which had gone for redevelopment. She continued to stay there without electricity because she was not getting a place to live in a decent housing society. The registrar of societies must come with a rule where single women are not refused houses.” Sumitra, who is now the chairperson of her housing colony, and says how, long ago, there was an objection to her letting out a flat to a woman who was single. “The lady was navy officer – a central government employee – and yet there were objections,” she says. But she prevailed. She says the registrar of societies should change the rules to ensure that such prejudices are not allowed to thrive.
Meanwhile, she says the fight against tobacco will continue – as will the case for LIC disinvesting in tobacco companies. “Since the tobacco lobby is very strong, people told me to stay away and not invite trouble,” she says. “But I am not deterred or scared. It is my calling. Whatever has to happen will happen. If ever I have compromised in life, it was for my family – my husband and my daughters. It was my choice and not compulsion. Yet I was doing many things. Now nothing scares me.”
(The article appears in the August 1-15, 2017 issue of Governance Now)