Photograph of Anil Chawla

Author - Anil Chawla

Gutkha was banned by High Courts of some states. Can the ban be implemented? Does it stand the test of common sense? Can we not learn a few lessons from the unsuccessful attempts of enforcing prohibition?

Constitution of India has no provisions prescribing the use of common sense. No wonder that our leaders, judges and social activists often act in such a preposterous manner. A very simple rule of common sense is “One should only do what is within one’s capabilities and never attempt the impossible.” This rule is often ignored by those who demand State action even in areas where the State has failed repeatedly in the past. Honourable judges and respected ministers regularly pass well-intentioned orders that can never be implemented. Ban of Gutkha clears falls in such a category.

Gutkha is a mixture of pieces of betel nuts (areca nut), lime, spices, colouring and flavouring agents. Gutkha may or may not contain tobacco, but often it does. Traditionally gutkha was made and sold at a retail level by vendors selling betel leaf. It has shot into prominence in the past three decades after being sold as a branded mass-manufactured product. It was packed initially in tin cans and later in small multi-layered pouches of 5 grams or less.

Gutkha has been blamed for increasing cases of oral cancer and many other diseases. This has led social activists to demand ban on gutkha. Some High Courts, responding to public interest litigations, passed orders banning it. Supreme Court has stayed the ban. Governments both at Centre and in the states have been responding by giving mixed signals. Political parties do not know how to react. Some units of BJP youth wing have been active in demanding the ban on gutkha, while BJP General Secretary and Spokesman, Arun Jaitely appeared in Supreme Court as a lawyer on behalf of gutkha manufacturers.

The prohibitionists have focused on the harmful effects of gutkha. On the other hand gutkha manufacturers have a simple argument – “Why only gutkha, why not cigarette, bidi, chewing tobacco and liquor?” They argue that it makes no logical sense to ban gutkha without imposing a similar ban on all other tobacco products. Pro-ban lobby quotes medical reports and anti-ban lobby pleads with the help of lawyers who are paid obscene amounts of money. In the midst of all this heat and fury, the real issues seem to have been lost. There is no doubt that gutkha (or any tobacco product) is harmful to health. No one (except handsomely paid lawyers) can defend gutkha. The issue is, however, not gutkha but the feasibility and practicability of imposing a ban.

There is a long history of banning, prohibiting or restricting the sale and consumption of products harmful to human beings. Prohibition on liquor was tried in USA in the first quarter of last century and in India in the second half of last century. Gujarat continues to be a dry state even today. It is now accepted by almost all (except a handful of extremists) that the policy of prohibition has failed miserably wherever it has been tried. Prohibition in USA led to the rise of a mafia that soon became a challenge to the legitimate government. Even in India, the liquor trade moved from the hands of normal businessmen to the clutches of organized criminals in every state where prohibition was tried. Development of an unholy nexus of the underworld with politicians, bureaucrats and police officers has been a result of prohibition. It is this nexus that has been most vehemently opposing lifting of prohibition in Gujarat. Under prohibition, an average consumer pays much more for a bottle of liquor. Normally, liquor contributes the maximum revenue to state exchequer. Under prohibition, Government earns no revenue from the sale of liquor. The revenue amount (actually a higher amount) now flows to the mafia and their patrons in the state machinery. In other words, prohibition helps growth of crime and weakens the legitimate institutions of state.

It has been demonstrated time and again that prohibition does not lead to a substantial reduction in alcohol consumption. In recent years Haryana experimented with prohibition. The experiment was an utter failure. After the lifting of prohibition in Haryana, liquor consumption has increased to a level higher than that of pre-prohibition days.

Contrast the failures of experiments in prohibition with the successes of anti-smoking campaign carried out across the world for the past three decades. Four decades back, smoking was fashionable, cool and the in-thing. Almost every movie whether made in Hollywood or Bollywood showed the main lead male star smoking. Things have changed almost completely for the smokers. Films no longer show the hero with a cigarette on his lips. Smokers are not welcome at most social gatherings. A smoker has to typically hide himself in a toilet or go out into the street to have a puff. Sales of cigarette companies have been falling in most countries across the world. Three decades back more than half the students on the campuses smoked. Now this figure is less than ten per cent. All this has been achieved without any punitive measures or restrictions on manufacture, sale or consumption of cigarettes.

In fact the setbacks in the anti-smoking campaign have been in only those areas where harsh prohibitive measures were attempted. An example is the recent ban, following Supreme Court directives, on smoking in trains and railway premises anywhere in the country. The ban has been a failure. One can see smokers standing near the doors and toilets polluting the air with impunity.

The ban on gutkha may at best be a failure as the directive prohibiting smoking in trains has proved to be. What is however more likely is that it will go the way of liquor prohibition. The underworld may discover a new source of easy money. The law enforcing machinery may also find it a lucrative opportunity where they will make huge piles of money by just looking in the other direction.

Let us also look at the machinery, which is supposed to enforce the ban. In states like Madhya Pradesh and Uttar Pradesh, a large number of cabinet ministers are addicted to gutkha. A significantly large number (by some estimates it is a majority) of policemen, lawyers, court officials and government employees are seen with a swollen lower lip, spitting and leaving dirty red marks in the corridors of power. Almost every government office (in most states of India) bears such testimonial marks in the corridors and in every nook and corner. Is it not ridiculous to imagine that such hopeless addicts will be able to prevent others from falling prey to the habit?

The absurdity of gutkha-prohibition is based on another simple fact. All the ingredients of gutkha – betel nut, lime, tobacco, colouring and flavouring agents – are and shall continue to be sold legally. It would also not be illegal to make the mixture. In fact small roadside shops would continue to make and sell the mixture. Prohibition would only be on the packing and sale of packaged mixture. In other words, it is like saying that there would not be a ban on sale of liquor but bottled liquor would be prohibited. Trust Indian authorities (and activists) to come up with such innovative ideas. Too bad, if you find it ludicrous.

A sensible approach to the problem would have built on the successful model of anti-smoking campaign based on education, persuasion and creating a positive social environment. As a first step, advertisement and publicity of gutkha and all tobacco based products should be prohibited. Educating the public about bad effects of chewing gutkha and tobacco should receive the priority of the Governments. Help may be taken in this regard from media, advertising agencies, social organizations etc. A complete ban should be imposed on chewing of ‘pan’ (betel leaf), gutkha and tobacco in all offices, courts and public places. High Courts, who have issued orders for general ban of gutkha, should first make their own premises free of gutkha and tobacco. A very strict view should also be taken of spitting in public. There should be a campaign to get rid of the dirty red marks on public walls across the country.

The steps suggested above are based on the understanding that there are limits to state action. A state represents the will of the people. It cannot confront and go against its own people. A state can only act as a catalyst for social reforms that seek to modify the will of the people. This is a slow process that requires patience and perseverance.

It needs no expert knowledge but good old common sense to realize that a slow and steady approach is likely to work much better than the impractical sledgehammer approach of total ban on manufacture and sale of gutkha. Let us pray that the guardians of law would go by common sense and not just by constitution and laws.


12 August 2002

Please write to me your comments about the above article.

ANIL CHAWLA is an engineer by qualification but a philosopher by vocation and a management consultant by profession.

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