On the occasion of the World No Tobacco Day, Dr Chaturvedi talks about his fight against the state-run insurance firm LIC’s investments in a leading cigarette-maker
Dr Pankaj Chaturvedi, a head and neck cancer surgeon at the Tata Memorial hospital in Mumbai, is a leading anti-tobacco activist. He joined hands with Sumitra Hooda Pednekar and others to file a PIL in the Bombay High Court earlier this year, questioning the state-run insurance firm LIC’s investments in a leading cigarette-maker.
On the occasion of the World No Tobacco Day, Geetanjali Minhas talks to Dr Chaturvedi. Edited excerpts from the interview:
The LIC chief recently defended the corporation’s investment in cigarette-manufacturer ITC. Chairman VK Sharma said, “LIC is sensitive to protecting policyholders’ interests and giving them good returns in the long run.” Also, “a sale of its stake holding would neither prevent people from taking up smoking nor help smokers kick the habit”. What is your response?
The government of India is committed to tobacco control through ministry of health (MoH) and that is evident as every packet has a warning that ‘cigarette smoking causes cancer’. The testimonials, pictures and warnings that we shot at Tata Hospital were accepted by an expert committee constituted by the MoH. The picture is now carried on all tobacco packets and testimonials are shown in cinema halls and TV. The government has declared tobacco and pan masala without tobacco and sugary drinks which are the cause of health burden, that is, non-communicable diseases including cancer, as demerit goods and put them under the highest slab category in GST. Beedi still remains out of this ambit and we are working on that. The Juvenile Justice Act also says that sale of tobacco to minor children is a non-bailable offence.
The government is hell bent on controlling tobacco consumption, because it causes cancer. The earnings from the sale of tobacco are 17 percent of the loss from tobacco. We earn around Rs 17,000 crore [through taxes] and lose around Rs one lakh crore after killing one million people. So, (a) people are losing their lives, and (b) the government is losing its money. Here is a product which by the admission of the industry itself leads to health hazards and kills people – we don’t even have to prove it. India is signatory to FCTC [WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control
] and it is a legal obligation on the government to comply with FSTC. Article 5.3 of FCTC very clearly says that there cannot be investment in tobacco companies and the government cannot take commissions from tobacco companies.
Speaking of LIC, if the government is committed to controlling tobacco, its agencies – whether they are cigarette companies or health institutions –cannot promote tobacco contrary to its intentions. Even if tobacco was not an issue at all, there is a constitutional obligation of the government to uphold the dignity of life under Article 21. Therefore, right to health and social equality are constitutional obligation of the government and all its subsidiaries whether they are PSUs or direct/indirect government holdings and all have to comply with the its mandate.
The issue here is whether LIC can promote a socially bounded weak product despite a clear understanding that from the viewpoint of health this should not be done and where it is violating government’s own principles. When LIC says it is doing it in pure commercial interest I have a one basic question. How can an insurance company promote health disaster and death while providing insurance policies at the same time? On one hand you are promoting health, and on the other hand you are supporting disease and death. This is a violation of LIC’s own philosophy of protecting people’s health.
In an RTI query in 2014, I asked them if they also agree that tobacco causes harm. Do you know that claims of policyholders who got a heart attack and those who had cancer are rejected? LIC does not honour the claims of people who get cancer or diseases which are attributable to tobacco. This is contradictory. On one hand you are rejecting claims of people with diseases and on the other hand you are promoting the same agent that causes the disease. You are not charging higher premium for insurance knowing very well that these people are more likely to have disease which means you are promoting the business of smoking and when they come back with the claim you reject that policy. It is a win-win situation and money-making business. The exchequer is the ultimate sufferer because Rs 1 lakh crore of investors’ money is invested in ITC, in an industry which is killing two lakh people every year. This is a paradox and we are not able to understand how commercial interest has become public interest. In contrast, when we talk of Rs 50,000 crore disinvestment in Air India, it has not killed people.
Second, LIC says if it does not buy these shares somebody else will because these are good shares. That is like saying if we don’t kill people somebody else will kill, so allow us to kill. It does not become a lesser crime because you are a government investor.
How did the idea of this PIL come up? And how did the various petitioners come together?
During the last seven-eight years we wrote to the prime minister’s office, the finance minister’s office, various political parties, Congress leaders, ministry of health and IRDA [Insurance Regulatory and Development Authority]. We did not receive a single response. So we had to knock the doors of the court. ITC is a very powerful lobby and they have built connections in the political establishment and the government.
It is a very clear from the PIL now that the ministries of finance, commerce, agriculture, health and so on have pooled in their labour. So it is seven mortals versus the entire government machinery. We knew this was bound to happen and we put in a ‘rainbow collaboration’ of a tobacco victim, a politician, a lawyer, researcher, a corporate and a social activist. It’s a group of people and not just an individual.
Can you name other public sector firms and government entities that are directly or indirectly involved in tobacco trade?
All five major public insurance companies – Life Insurance Corporation of India, New India Assurance Company, General Insurance Company of India, Oriental Insurance Company, National Insurance Company – and Specified Undertaking of Unit Trust of India [SUUTI]. Of the total government stake, 60 percent is by LIC, followed by SUUTI and a small 1-2 percentage by these other insurance companies. It is most unfortunate that the finance secretary is the member of the LIC board, which means that decisions taken by the LIC board are in full knowledge of the finance ministry and with their concurrence.
What would you say in response to the advertising campaign from the tobacco lobby showing farmers and retailers pleading for their livelihood?
The government can be more proactive in tobacco control than being part of the business. Let people buy but government cannot be prompting death. You cannot be killing people and then say we are trying to prevent their death. It is a legal business. We are not asking for ban on tobacco, we are saying the government cannot promote tobacco because it is a serious conflict of interest.
Nowhere in the world has divestment led to farmers becoming jobless or companies getting shut. Somebody else is suffering and dying. Nothing happens to consumption; perhaps nothing will happen to farmers. But there are lobbies of ITC who do not fight the government directly but through farmers and vendors as a front.
We know that farmers and beedi workers are as much victims of tobacco and taken for a ride and exploited by the tobacco industry as tobacco users. Most people who earn from tobacco, the beedi barons, are politicians – MLAs or MPs and gutka owners are calling the shots.