The Federation of All India Farmer Associations (FAIFA), a non-profit organisation representing millions of farmers and farm workers of commercial crops across Andhra Pradesh, Telangana, Karnataka, Gujarat, on Wednesday challenged the World Health Organisation (WHO) to provide evidence on its recommendation that alternative crops should replace tobacco crops as they are impacting sustainable agriculture and contributing to global food crisis.

FAIFA has also submitted a representation to the Prime Minister’s Office (PMO), the Ministry of Finance, the Ministry of Commerce and the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare to probe into WHO’s unscientific recommendation. FAIFA alleged that certain groups with vested interests are propagating the (misplaced) benefits of other crops replacing tobacco cultivation.

Tobacco cultivation is predominantly practised in semi-arid regions where alternative sustainable crops are not economically viable. However, even these arid lands are becoming more inhospitable due to climate change. In light of this situation, the WHO recommendations to replace tobacco with other crops is illogical and is an agenda driven by vested interests, FAIFA said in a statement.

Loss for farmers

Javare Gowda, President, Federation of All India Farmer Associations (FAIFA), “WHO officials should not be making such unscientific statements or recommendations. We invite them to our lands where tobacco is cultivated for a minimum stay of 30 days or as long as they want to experience firsthand the harsh conditions. We challenge them to replace tobacco crops and demonstrate alternative crops that are equally remunerative and sturdy. If they fail, they should shut down their offices in the country and leave. This is a fair demand since they are causing economic loss to farmers.”

Previous attempts were made in Andhra Pradesh wherein tobacco farmers switched to alternative crops like gram and paddy. However, a study conducted by the Central Tobacco Research Institute (CTRI) indicated that this substitution led to significant losses for the farmers in comparison to their previous earnings from tobacco cultivation, FAIFA said.

Illegal trade flourishing

High taxation has resulted in a surge of illegal and smuggled cigarettes into the country. The illicit cigarette volumes in India witnessed a significant 44 per cent increase over a decade, rising from 19.5 billion sticks in 2011 to 28.1 billion sticks in 2020, according to Euromonitor International. Consequently, flue cured virginia (FCV) tobacco crop size has shrunk by about 40 per cent from 316 million kg in 2013-14 to 189 million kg in 2021-22, resulting in a loss of 35 million man-days of employment and a 30 per cent drop in income. Due to the steep drop in FCV crop size and crop substitution, farmers’ earnings have shrunk cumulatively by more than ₹7,500 crore since 2013-14. Additionally, the FCV cultivation acreage in India plummeted from 2,21,385 hectares in 2013-14 to 1,22,257 hectares in 2020-21, FAIFA claimed.

Drop in output

The Tobacco Board, under the Ministry of Commerce and Industries, regulates tobacco cultivation and sets authorised production levels for each State. However, due to the impact of climate change manifested through cyclones, floods and droughts, actual production has consistently fallen short of the authorised levels. Between 2015-16 and 2020-21, the authorised production versus actual production in Andhra Pradesh and Karnataka declined from 1572 million kg to 1468 million kg, representing a decrease of over 100 million kg. Furthermore, in Karnataka alone, continuous rainfall in 2022-23 resulted in a significant drop in tobacco production from the authorised 100 million kg to 59.98 million kg, indicating a 40 per cent decrease in crop size.

Murali Babu, General Secretary, FAIFA,said:“We appeal to WHO to show their genuine intent to help the farming community and they should guarantee full compensation for any loss arising to the tobacco farmers. We request them to show their intent and deposit a minimum of ₹ 1,000 crore with the Tobacco Board and continue to replenish this every year so that amount can be distributed to farmers to cover the loss for crop substitution.”

“The WHO Framework Convention on Tobacco Control (FCTC), an international treaty that India is a party to, is a threat to the livelihoods of tobacco farmers as it has not provided viable alternatives for tobacco-growing countries. Considering that the recommendations will result in revenue loss including foreign exchange earnings, the Government of India must investigate the recommendations,” Babu added.

India should not implement the guidelines or recommendations made by WHO as these are ‘’one-size fits all” solutions based on a western model of tobacco consumption. They do not necessarily serve the purpose of tobacco control or revenue enhancement in a country like India. Further, India being a large tobacco producer the livelihood of millions will be affected due to such appeals without doing proper agro-climatic studies, FAIFA said.