Injurious to farmers

Jyotsna Singh and Rahul Maganti | Updated on February 02, 2018

Drop down: Andhra Pradesh’s tobacco production fell from 167 million kg to 110 million kg during 2015-17   -  Rahul Maganti

Cultivators in Andhra Pradesh are moving away from tobacco, belying claims by vested interests that it is among the most profitable crops

In November 2016, an image of a hapless farmer with folded hands appeared on the backs of autorickshaws in Delhi. On closer look, one learnt that it was a tobacco farmer requesting help to save his livelihood. The ad campaign was put out by a farmers’ organisation ahead of the World Health Organisation’s annual convention, held in Noida that year, which frames laws for countries to reduce tobacco consumption. The group behind the ad, the Federation of All India Farmer Associations (FAIFA) was founded in 2015 and advocates for the premium quality Flue-cured Virginia (FCV) tobacco used in cigarettes.

However, more than 1,500 km from Delhi, in coastal Andhra Pradesh, tobacco farmers have a different story to tell. The chief tobacco-growing States are Andhra Pradesh, Gujarat, Karnataka, West Bengal, Maharashtra, Tamil Nadu, Orissa, and Bihar. Andhra Pradesh tops countrywide in tobacco production, including the FCV variety. Many of its farmers have started to shift to other crops. The area under tobacco fell from 3.3 lakh acres in 2015-16 to 2.24 lakh acres in 2016-17. Production fell from 167 million kg to 110 million kg, leaving the Tobacco Board of India unable to meet its annual target of 130 million kg in Andhra Pradesh. The reasons: It is not among the most profitable crops, as claimed by bodies like FAIFA; and the health hazards to the farmers and their families who work in the field.

Ground check

In September 2015, Simhadri Venkateswara Rao, a 49-year-old tobacco farmer from Devarapalli mandal of West Godavari district wrote to the State’s chief minister for measures to tackle the problems of the State’s registered FCV tobacco cultivators. “If the government gives us [₹]9 lakh per barn, we will shift out of tobacco cultivation, which is only leaving us in losses, year after year,” reads his letter, also addressed to the state and central governments. Barns are the structures where farmers dry and cure the tobacco produce before selling to the trader or cigarette companies. They cost several lakhs of rupees to build. In the letter, Rao also threatened to commit suicide because of his skyrocketing loans and the tobacco board’s failure to buy his produce, leading to losses. A week later, he committed suicide even before any of them responded.

He was not the only tobacco farmer to meet this end in the recent past. According to estimates by the All India Kisan Sabha (AIKS), around 25 tobacco farmers committed suicide in 2015-16 alone, across the districts of West Godavari, Guntur and Prakasam.

Tobacco is a winter crop and can be grown only once a year. It takes two months to ripen and the following month is spent in the processing. “Being a labour-intensive crop, especially during the processing period, the input costs are high, nearly ₹80,000 to ₹1 lakh per acre,” says Sarampalli Malla Reddy, vice-president, AIKS. The low price fetched during auction, he said, has made tobacco cultivation unsustainable.

Forty-year-old Srinivasa Rao from T Agraharam village in Prakasam district, takes three acres on lease, paying ₹60,000. “The investment per kg of tobacco was ₹110 last year and the cigarette companies paid us ₹120-130 per kg. I plan to shift to maize or groundnut cultivation — otherwise, my loans will keep mounting. The government should compensate us with ₹10 lakh per barn,” he says. After nearly two decades of tobacco cultivation, he has amassed a debt of ₹5 lakh.

Each barn employs 10 workers (called tokers) on a daily wage. Around 33 muthas (as a ten-member group of workers is called) used to come to T Agraharam during the curing season until even five years ago. They lived in makeshift huts beside the barns. This year, however, barely 10 muthas arrived in the village.

Are the cigarette companies, too, incurring losses? Apparently not. Nagaboina Rangarao, an AIKS leader in the region who has been following the issue for decades, puts things in context: “The cigarette companies make 1,200-1,400 cigarettes with a kilogram of tobacco. Even if you assume that the production cost is ₹100 per kg, the cigarette companies are making whopping profits, wherein they invest less than ₹250 and mint ₹20,000 per kg of tobacco. The annual report of ITC says that it earns profits of ₹15,000-20,000 crore from the tobacco/cigarette sector.”

Drop down: Andhra Pradesh’s tobacco production fell from 167 million kg to 110 million kg during 2015-17   -  Rahul Maganti

Unlike other crops, tobacco cultivation is heavily regulated. The Guntur-based Tobacco Board of the Ministry of Commerce and Industry sets the production limit for each State and only registered farmers can cultivate it. The board arranges auctions, in which tobacco companies like ITC and Philip Morris participate. There have been years when tobacco production exceeded the limit, but that was to the farmers’ disadvantage. “The companies pay less, claiming that they are helping the farmers by buying the surplus, which would otherwise go waste. The fact remains that they use that tobacco to make more cigarettes,” says Rangarao.

Many farmers, Reddy says, have decided they cannot grow tobacco anymore. The farmers’ unions in Prakasam district have given a call to suspend cultivation in 2018-19. Already, nearly 70,000 acres were diverted from tobacco to chickpea last year. As the legume is not consumed locally, it has to be transported for sale to north Indian States like Bihar and Uttar Pradesh. Yet, as the production cost is substantially lower — ₹10,000 per acre — it is more profitable than tobacco.

Health concerns

“Farmers and labourers have also realised the health hazards posed by tobacco farming and processing. There is a higher likelihood of cancer and skin diseases. The hands of those who work in the field always smell of tobacco, no matter how many times they wash them,” says Reddy. Most worrying is the impact on children’s health. As the labourers work in the barns, where the crop is burnt and dried, their children play in the vicinity getting exposed to tobacco smoke.

Green Tobacco Sickness (GTS) is the most commonly found disease among those who harvest the crop, and it impacts their families too. During the plucking of mature leaves, the skin absorbs nicotine from the wet leaf. According to an Indian Council of Medical Research (ICMR) publication, GTS causes headache, nausea, giddiness, loss of appetite, fatigue and, sometimes, fluctuations in blood pressure or heart rate. The ICMR studies, conducted between 1979 and 1986, show that the incidence of GTS is fairly high among harvesters — 86.2 per cent among non-FCV workers and 53.29 per cent among FCV harvesters.

A 2004 report by the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare stated that there was a high prevalence of GTS, leading to loss of wages for the harvesters. Among bidi workers, there is a high incidence of tuberculosis. Other hazards arising out of exposure to pesticides affect all farmers, including those growing tobacco.

Demands of the farmers

Unlike the ad campaign in Delhi, in Andhra Pradesh the farmers have been demanding government assistance to shift to other crops. Compensation for barns emerges as the most important issue. On January 13, 2018, tobacco farmers in Prakasam district met the YSR Congress Party parliamentarian YV Subba Reddy, and requested him to mediate for a compensation of ₹10 lakh per barn.

There are various ways of drying tobacco. In the air-dried method, it is enough if the barn has proper ventilation. But to produce high-quality tobacco, the methods used are different, with the FCV variety requiring the costliest of them all. Tobacco leaves are placed in a container and heated indirectly between 60-80 degrees Celsius. Having invested heavily in the construction of barns, it is not easy for a farmer to simply walk away and shift to other crops.

Nevertheless, scores of them have chosen to do just that, clearly demonstrating their unwillingness to continue with tobacco. Sixty-year-old Kilari Nageswara Rao’s seven acres in Moogachintala village, in Podili mandal, are lying fallow for two years now, since he gave up tobacco cultivation. “I did not get returns that matched my investment for three straight years, because the tobacco board colluded with the cigarette companies and controlled the market price. I had a loan of ₹4 lakh and I could no longer afford to continue growing tobacco. Maize and cereals are also leaving us in losses, so it is better to not grow anything than run up losses,” says Rao, who is gradually repaying his debts now.

As much as half of the 2,400 acres of agricultural land in Moogachintala village remains fallow today.

Only 50 of the 150 barns in the village are operational. In T Agraharam village, 150 of the 220 barns lie defunct. In the entire State, out of 42,000 barns, 15,000 are not in use anymore. The Southern Black soil of eastern Prakasam (in which T Agraharam falls) usually yields nearly double the productivity of the Southern Light soil of western Prakasam (in which Moogachintala falls).

The higher incidence of tobacco farmer suicides in the light soil regions points to the higher distress among them.

Pulling in different directions

Underlying all these issues is the ongoing tussle between business and farmer welfare. The Tobacco Board, which regulates tobacco cultivation, does not fall under the ministry of health or agriculture.

As a part of the commerce ministry, its primary motive is to promote the business of tobacco. A recent notification from the board makes clear that global companies can now buy FCV tobacco directly from Indian farmers — this was not allowed earlier. The board is encouraging these companies to set up offices in Guntur, as also help Indian entrepreneurs by purchasing tobacco jointly.

The board’s spokesperson denied any knowledge of the ad campaign by FAIFA. An official said on condition of anonymity that “the board is hardly independent and often safeguards the interests of the companies over the farmers”.

Even though the board claims that it is of the view that FCV tobacco production should be phased out, its actions speak otherwise. In a circular dated September 16, 2016, inviting registration of farmers from Andhra Pradesh for FCV production, the board stated that “there shall be a gradual phase out of tobacco cultivation as decided in the previous Board meeting and the reduction shall be gradual and uniform in both Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka without affecting the farmers’ interests.” The same circular fixed the production limit for FCV at 130 million kg for 2016-17 — an increase of 10 million kg from the previous year.

As the autorickshaws move around Delhi with the poster even today, they betray the real interests of tobacco farmers.

Jyotsna Singh is a Delhi-based health journalist and Rahul Maganti is a reporter based in Vijayawada

Published on February 02, 2018

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