Rahul Kumar Gaurav | Mar 24 | 8 min read
There is neither a blanket ban on tobacco due to political compulsions nor a compensatory mechanism, even as the risk of crop failure remains high
Patna, Bihar: Bihar’s love for khaini is so famous that even former chief minister Lalu Prasad could often be seen chewing it in public. In a way, finding favour with the political class saved this sun-dried/fermented version of tobacco from the ban imposed in the state on other addictive substances such as liquor, gutka and pan masala.
Traditionally, a user prepares khaini by placing coarsely cut tobacco leaves in the palm along with slaked lime and then rubs the ingredients thoroughly with the thumb. It is also commercially available in sachets, with spices and liquorice added to make it more appealing.
In Bihar, Vaishali and Alipur are the main production centres of khaini, while Muzaffarpur, Darbhanga and Sitamarhi also contribute. Sarairanjan and Ujiarpur blocks in Samastipur district are famous for saraisa khaini, which is of high quality due to the region's favourable climate. The product has a niche market, much bigger than that of cigarette or bidi.
Khaini has the least tax in the state among all tobacco products, though it has high nicotine content as in cigarette or gutka. While Goods and Services Tax (GST) reverse charge of 5% is applicable on tobacco leaves, other tobacco products have 28% GST. The silent acceptance of khaini and double standards in taxation stem mainly from the political dominance and connections of the Koeri-Mahtos, a backward caste with huge stakes in tobacco cultivation and allied businesses in Bihar.
At the same time, the government does not compensate tobacco farmers in the event of crop loss or promote any scheme on this front to keep its image clean. Consequently, the farmers are left to fend for themselves, come rain or shine. Yet, many continue to cultivate tobacco due to the high profit margins a good crop year can offer.
Bihar is the fifth largest producer of tobacco in the country, preceded by Gujarat, Andhra Pradesh, Uttar Pradesh and Karnataka. The state produced 18.030 thousand tonnes of tobacco in 2020 compared with 18.930 thousand tonnes in 2019. Though there is a decline in production, previous years have also seen similar fluctuations. Production was at an all-time high of 23.010 thousand tonnes in 2014, before plunging to 15.810 thousand tonnes in 2017. In the subsequent years, it has hovered around 18-19 thousand tonnes.
Why farmers stay put
Tobacco produced in Bihar is mostly made into khaini. In 2014, when Jitan Ram Manjhi was the chief minister, tax on tobacco products barring khaini and bidi was doubled from 30% to 60%.
According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey-Second Round (GATS-2), smokeless tobacco use (21.4%) is twice that of smoking (10.7%) in the country, with 85% (18.2% of all adults) of users consuming it every day. In GATS-1 (2009-10), smokeless tobacco users were 26% of the population against smokers who formed 14%.
According to GATS-2 Bihar data, 23.5% preferred smokeless tobacco, with 20.4% using khaini. In GATS-1, the numbers were 48.7% and 27.6%, respectively. It shows that despite the reduction in tobacco use, khaini still holds a major share in the smokeless category, which is one of the reasons why farmers still cultivate the crop.
“Tobacco is a drought-tolerant, hardy and short-duration crop. It has a good advantage over paddy and wheat,” Professor Subodh Kumar Jha of Lalit Narayan Sansthan in Muzaffarpur told 101Reporters.
If wheat is cultivated, a farmer is likely to get a maximum yield of eight to 10 quintals from one bigha land (one bigha equals 20 kathas; one acre equals 32 kathas). Despite last year's drought, Nishant Thakur of Mirzapur in Samastipur’s Kalyanpur block harvested 40 quintals of wheat from his four bighas of land. As wheat was sold in Bihar for Rs 2,000 per quintal last year, he made around Rs 80,000. After subtracting the expenses, his profit stood around Rs 55,000-60,000.
At the same time, Aditya Chaudhary of Mirzapur cultivated tobacco in just one-and-a-half bighas and got 10 quintals. He sold it to the trader for Rs 86,000. After covering all expenses, he made a profit of around Rs 45,000. When cultivation in four bighas was required to make a profit of above Rs 55,000 in wheat, tobacco farmer could make above Rs 40,000 from just one-and-a-half bighas.
“Being a cash crop, tobacco’s profit margin is decent and the trade is strictly based on quality. The yield fluctuates. Some fields may give 20 kg from one katha, while some others may yield even 40 kg. The harvested raw tobacco can be priced anywhere between Rs 5,000 and Rs 30,000 per quintal, depending on the quality,” Arvind Mishra, who works as state agriculture department’s coordinator in Saharsa, told 101Reporters.
If the quality is poor, businessmen give only very low prices for raw tobacco. Farmers bear the loss in such cases because preparing products from raw leaves is a cumbersome task, though it can fetch more money. “Tobacco crop needs constant care, and involves a lot of work. Preparing khaini in households is also a laborious process. Even a slight mistake can ruin its quality and cause discolouration,” Mishra explained.
Planting happens in September and the crop is harvested in January-February. For improving leaf size and quality, the plant’s flower head is removed (topping) and the growth of axillary shoots (suckers) is controlled. Both these time-consuming tasks are done manually.
The process of turning the yield into market-ready products takes at least five months. The cut leaves should be dried several times. While good quality material goes into khaini, poor quality leaves are stuffed into cigarettes. The stems of the leaves go into gutka.
According to Mishra, khaini from Hajipur and Samastipur is of better quality than any other region because the farmers there have been cultivating only tobacco for years. However, Kisan Union-Samastipur leader Ramashray Mahto claimed the cultivation has decreased in Samastipur district, though about 20,000 hectares have tobacco on it.
“In our village, tobacco farming has been passed down through generations. This is the only cultivation we know. Local MLAs promise to help us, but the government does not. In fact, a faction within the government opposes the idea of giving any kind of relief to us. Right now, the tobacco purchased from Bihar is sold in other states,” said Bipul Thakur, a graduate in his mid-30s engaged in tobacco cultivation in 100 kathas in Muzaffarpur district.
“There is no benefit in tobacco farming when we consider the risk and uncertainty. We cultivate it only when we manage to make more money out of wheat/paddy crop,” claimed Shambhu Mahto, who prepared khaini from his crop on two bighas of land in Sarairanjan block last time. He spent Rs 80,000 on cultivation and turned raw leaves into khaini, hoping for a better price. But what traders had offered him was just Rs 10,000 to 15,000 more than his expenses.
“Rain is more dangerous to this crop than anything else,” Shambhu spoke from his experience. Surendra Prasad Thakur (60) of Mirzapur could not agree more. “I lost a minimum of Rs 2 lakh when tobacco on my five bigha farm was destroyed in the 2017 floods. After that, I switched to vegetable farming. Over 50 people used to cultivate tobacco in my village, now only a few are there.”
Last year, drought hit them hard. "We had to pay Rs 150 per hour to get water using private pumpsets. Five to seven hours of irrigation was required for one katha land, which means a minimum of Rs 750 was spent on water alone. Yet, the tobacco quality was poor due to dryness,” Shambhu explained.
Apart from droughts and floods, there are challenges like rampaging nilgais and fungal diseases to tackle. “Farmers try to make up for the losses by applying more fertilisers and chemical pesticides during the next crop cycle, which deteriorates the land quality,” said Tanu Priya, a student of Dr Rajendra Prasad Central Agricultural University in Pusa.
However, farmers felt that government apathy hurt them more. “After several reports on the high level of tobacco consumption in the state, the government stopped paying attention to us even more. As the farmers’ unions are also weak, middlemen grab our produce for extremely low prices and sell it at very high rates,” Nishant said.
Ramashray agreed that tobacco farmers were victims of politics. “Neither the government bans tobacco nor helps its cultivators. Last year’s drought is a good example. If the government is ready to at least compensate for the losses incurred, farmers would not have to migrate to Delhi or Punjab for work.”
Reacting to this, an official on condition of anonymity said, "How can the government support its farming when tobacco causes cancer to millions of people? There should be an alternative to tobacco farming."
People of Bihar term khaini as buddhivardhak churna (a brain booster mixture). However, no amount of whitewashing or endorsements by celebrities and politicians can improve its reputation. It is high time farmers are weaned away from tobacco cultivation and introduced to ethically correct crops.
Cover photo - According to the Global Adult Tobacco Survey, 23.5% of tobacco users in Bihar preferred smokeless tobacco, with 20.4% using khaini (Photo - Ashutosh Thakur, 101Reporters)
Edited by Rekha Pulinnoli
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