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Above: The Rajasthan government may find it difficult to implement the hookah ban in villages/Photo: Yann Forget/commons.wikimedia.org

In an effort to stop the increasing prevalence of hookah smoking, the Rajasthan government has come out with a bill to prohibit and punish those indulging in this pastime

By Asif Ullah Khan in Jaipur

Going up in smoke has taken on an altogether different meaning in Rajasthan. Not only has the state government banned hookah smoking in public places, but also made it a punishable offence. With the passing of the amendment of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products (Prohibition of Advertisement and Regulation of Trade and Commerce, Production, Supply and Distribution) (Rajasthan Amendment) Bill, 2019, in the assembly, opening and running of hookah bars have been prohibited.

Explaining the rationale behind the Bill, Rajasthan Health and Family Welfare minister Dr Raghu Sharma said: “In comparison to Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act of 2003, the Rajasthan Amendment Bill is more effective. Under Section 4 of the central Act, there is a provision for a Rs 200 fine for the violators. As far as the Rajasthan Amendment Bill is concerned, it prescribes jail term of three years but not less than one year along with a fine ranging from Rs 50,000 to Rs 1 lakh.”

Earlier, hookah smoking was confined to village chaupals and social gatherings. However, with the advent of globalisation, the shisha or hookah, which was part of Middle Eastern culture, too arrived in India and these bars started mushrooming in cities. Sharma said the menace of hookah smoking was rapidly growing in urban and suburban areas of the state and posing serious health hazards not only to the young generation but adults too. The minister said nearly 50,000 people die due to tobacco-related diseases in the state. He said the central Act of 2003 only prohibits smoking in public places and regulates trade and sale of tobacco products, but does not prohibit hookah bars. “This is the reason we have introduced severe punishment to make it more effective,” he said.

It may be mentioned that earlier, when the government started cracking down on hookah bars under Section 144 of the CrPC, it was challenged in the Rajasthan High Court, which declared banning of hookah bars under this Section illegal.

In 2015, a single bench of Justice Prashant Kumar Aggarwal issued the order on a petition filed by Akshit Kumar Sharma, who challenged the ban on hookah bars by the police under Section 144. The petitioner said that the police order was against the provisions of the Cigarettes and Other Tobacco Products Act of 2003. The Court concurred with his view that the police had no authority to prohibit the facility of hookah or hookah bars under Section 144, but added that if the facility was found to be in violation of the 2003 Act, appropriate action could be taken under the law.

The efficacy of the law as far as cities are concerned should not be a problem for the authorities. But, how will this order be implemented in villages, where smoking a hookah in a chaupal or under a tree is a part of rural culture?

Dharamveer Katewa, an anti-smoking campaigner, told India Legal that over the years, the culture and lifestyle of even villagers had changed. “Of course, hookah smoking was part of the culture but that generation has gone. These days, you will hardly find hookah smokers and people who used to prepare hookahs for smoking. For hookahs, one needs burning charcoal, but with the prevalence of LPG gas, you will rarely find a household using charcoal as a cooking medium,” he said. There was a time when in villages, people thought that smoking hookahs together was one of the ways to prevent young boys from indulging in anti-social activities. But no more. “Today, smoking hookahs in villages has become part of the ‘heritage’, but unfortunately, cities have adopted this culture in the form of hookah bars.”

Welcoming the move, Giriraj Joshi, a member of the Jaipur Zila Parishad, said: “As far as hookah bars in cities are concerned, this step was long overdue as they were destroying the younger generation. Smoking and tobacco consumption in any form is harmful and hookah bars and cafes were promoting this culture among the youth. Moreover, many of these bars were allegedly serving drugs and other substances. So this is a positive step in eradicating a social evil.”

However, when told that the law also prohibited hookah smoking in public, meaning that now village chaupals will also face the same curbs, Joshi said that implementing this order would be quite tricky and the government should show flexibility. “Village chaupals, unlike hookah bars, are places where elders meet in the evening and discuss issues of the village. They are not indulging in any commercial activity. There, young people are neither allowed nor encouraged to smoke. This is an age-old custom, which has become a part of village culture. Villagers should be given this allowance. However, as we all know, smoking is injurious to health. So, the government and other authorities concerned should start a campaign against smoking in villages also so that we can make the villagers aware of the harmful effects of smoking and consumption of tobacco,” Joshi said.

Ram Phool Chowdhary, sarpanch of Machwa, a village near Jaipur, said the health of all people is important. Any disease does not discriminate between urban or rural people. “We need a sustained campaign against smoking. We need to educate people. This is more effective than law. Many social evils like death feasts, child marriages, etc., continued in villages despite being declared illegal. Now we rarely hear of such cases. This is the result of continued efforts of the government and many voluntary agencies in educating the rural populace. As they say, prevention is better than cure. In this case, education and awareness will be more effective than the stick of the law,” Chowdhary said.

The government is also aware of this problem and has decided against strict enforcement of the law in the villages. According to a senior official of the health department, a campaign will be started to make people aware of the new law. “As the assembly has just enacted the law, we need to inform people about what constitutes violation of the law before enforcing it,” the official added.

It is better to take preventive measures before the smoke chokes those inhaling it.

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