Swadeshi Jagran Manch bats for beedi industry, says wrong to club it with cigarettes

Swadeshi Jagran Manch bats for beedi industry, says wrong to club it with cigarettes thumbnail

The Swadeshi Jagran Manch (SJM) has backed beedi makers’ demand to exclude the product from proposed amendments to the cigarettes and other tobacco products Act of 2003.

The government had earlier this year sought comments from the public on the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) Amendment Bill, 2020.

Beedi makers had opposed many of the proposed amendments.

The proposals included making it mandatory for persons selling tobacco products to obtain licences and permissions, a ban on the sale of loose beedis with restrictions on branding and mandating the printing of its manufacturing date.

These would, the beedi makers argued, make business tough for small vendors who do not have the competency or financial means to obtain such licenses.

Beedis are mostly sold by small vendors and hawkers who have a small-scale set-up for selling tobacco, the economic wing of the SJM argued.

Making of beedis is labour intensive, while cigarettes are a capital-intensive business. Therefore, it is unfair to club the two products, said Ashwani Mahajan, convenor of the SJM, which is affiliated to the Rashtriya Swayamsewak Sangh (RSS).

“Beedi production has been a major source of employment in the country in the organised sector. A very small amount of central excise duty was levied on beedis by the central government. Many state governments had not even levied sales tax, keeping in mind the interests of beedi workers,” he said.

After the Goods and Services Tax (GST) was put in place, beedis attracted a 28% tax, the highest GST rate.

“This caused a big blow to employment in the beedi sector, especially in the organized sector of beedi manufacturing,” Mahajan said.

On the proposed amendments to the Act, he said although most were welcome, “some of them are detrimental to the people associated with the beedi manufacturing (beedi rollers) and distribution (small paan shop owners).”

According to the proposed rules, there is a provision of mandatory licence for the sale of beedis, cigarettes and other tobacco products.

“Those who fail to comply with this rule will have to pay hefty fines and even face imprisonment. While tabling the final Bill for consideration of Parliament, the government must consider that the proposed amendments do not affect employment in the beedi industry and livelihood of paan shop owners,” he said.

Mahajan also said that the government has to look at ways of increasing exports.

“There are lakhs of people dependent on the beedi industry and any impact on it will only lead to more dumping of cigarettes in India,” he said.

The SJM had protested when excise duties on beedis were brought down previously.

“The government listened to our points then and gradually gave relief. Cottage industry needs a push to be able to survive,” he said.

At an event attended by Cuban ambassador Alejandro Simancas, the SJM also endorsed a study that looked at how the beedi industry has been providing livelihood, particularly to rural women.

Vibha Vasuki, a human rights lawyer, and Siva Prasad Rambhatla, a senior professor of social anthropology, conducted the study, titled ‘A Study on the Status of Alternate Employment Schemes for Women Beedi Rollers’.

The study delves into the impact the amendments would have on the industry.

It mainly suggests that until skill-building and alternative employment is provided on a large scale for their livelihood, beedi rolling remains the only viable occupation for lakhs of women across India.

Arjun Khanna, member of the All India Bidi Industry Federation, said it was important to balance health concerns with livelihood issues.

“There are six ministries that regulate us. Often the health ministry and labour ministry have differences in the way they approach our issues. We want the government to be mindful that the beedi is not like other tobacco products,” he said.

There are 8.5 million rollers, 4.5 million pluckers, and 3.5 million families are dependent on the industry, which provides seasonal employment.

“It is a product for the poor made by the poorest of the poor. It is important that the government understands this peculiarity of the industry before framing laws,” he said.

Khanna pointed out that products such as beedis and agarbattis (incense sticks) had earlier been exempted from sales tax.

“We pay the highest GST. It is a very compliant industry that is important for the rural economy,” he said.

Beedis are manufactured across 17 states and has rollers mainly in nine states, including Andhra Pradesh, Bihar, Jharkhand, West Bengal, Telangana, Tamil Nadu, Madhya Pradesh, and Rajasthan.

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