So what do cigarettes and cows have in common? First, they are big business. Second, they have incredibly strong lobbyists for both sides of the debate. Personally, I've got a special connection and love for cows (hence my memoir, Holy Cancer: How A Cow Saved My Life) since childhood; I've had a hate-hate relationship with tobacco.
But lately, I find myself experiencing a sense of déjà vu as I read the news (I seldom watch television mostly because I have limited electricity — as I've written before, it is still not considered a human right here in India). What I remember are the heated debates I'd see unfolding back in the United States when hearing both sides of the abortion debate. I never understood how the so-called religious right could sanction the murder of medical practitioners while trying to protect the rights of unborn foetuses.
For me, that same logic seems to apply to both cigarettes and cows these days but for very different reasons. That cigarettes are injurious to health is a scientific fact. There is universal agreement on this. And, the Indian government spends over ₹300 billion annually on tobacco-related diseases. That's a quarter of all the spending on health. India is the oral cancer capital of the world with 65 percent of all cancer cases in the country being attributed to tobacco use.
I can go out and buy a cigarette anywhere in this country, much more easily than I can buy a piece of fresh fruit or even access cash from an ATM.
Cows on the other hand do a lot of good and also a lot of harm — depending on their use. The milk business alone in India worth ₹80,000 crore. More than half the global greenhouse gases emitted are cause by animal agriculture. For me, the indigenous desi cow is a giver, blessing the land when composted to fertilizer, and its products and byproducts providing healthy nutrients for our body. But not all cows are created equally — it's confusing for me to understand what makes an imported cow from Europe holy.
Yet, the arguments I hear on both the issues don't mention any of the above points. Despite having to watch multiple PSAs during every film I watch and seeing "Smoking Kills" subtitle pop up in every scene that a character is smoking, I can still go out and buy a cigarette anywhere in this country, much more easily than I can buy a piece of fresh fruit or even access cash from an ATM. Whether I am vegetarian or not (I am), almost every dish I order outside my home incorporates some form of dairy or meat.
I'm not a strong believer in forcing individuals to give up something for the sake of religion. Religion is a choice and as I recall, India is still a democracy that celebrates its religious diversity. I recently read that 72 percent of all Indians are non-vegetarian. I also know that more than 28 percent of India is Hindu. So, it is very clear that vegetarianism cannot be equated with Hinduism.
Science, on the other hand, can be debated but once studies have been completed and conclusions drawn — seldom do we see those facts being questioned again. Now, tobacco has been around for a long time. There were traditional uses for the plant but over time, smoking and chewing it became its sole use. Tobacco is not native to India but was brought here, much like the Jersey cow.
I recently read that 72 percent of all Indians are non-vegetarian. I also know that more than 28 percent of India is Hindu. So, it is very clear that vegetarianism cannot be equated with Hinduism.
So, I have one simple question. If we are spending so much money to stop people from smoking, and we know that cancer, which is the number one killer in India, is caused by tobacco — why not ban cigarettes instead of cows?
I'm assuming this has something to do with religion and not science. For me, both are cash cows (pun intended). Both are industries that generate huge profits and both are also products that we have become dependent upon and addicted to.
As a kid visiting India, I remember paneer being a special treat. It was either offered when we were invited to someone's home for a dinner or something on the menu at Moti Mahal. These days, no matter where I go, in every part of the country, I am offered paneer. From Kerala to Kumaon, it has become part of the daily diet. Beef is not the only problem!
Of course, paneer still requires a bit of searching to find and purchase (if not made at home) whereas cigarettes are as ubiquitous as Parle-G biscuits. How exactly do the religiously inclined supporting a beef ban justify not advocating a cigarette ban?
These days, no matter where I go, in every part of the country, I am offered paneer. From Kerala to Kumaon, it has become part of the daily diet.
If we know that something is bad for us and will kill us, isn't it our moral duty to stop people from using it?
Cows will exist whether we slaughter them or not (true certain breeds will die and perhaps the numbers will go down) but we have the power to simply stop tobacco cultivation. If you don't plant it, it won't grow.
I have a radical idea. Why doesn't the government make the 'desi' cow a protected class? Let the HF cows continue their role of providing dairy and meat for the world and the government use the ₹300 billion as loan money for farmers and cigarette companies to transfer their businesses out of the tobacco market and into the cow market. Yes, I'm talking big 'gaushala' business.
It's clear that no ban is going to stop the cow industry. Even if beef is on the menu, it doesn't kill us (remember, we kill cows). We grow tobacco. Its products kill us. I think its time we did some good in the name of science and religion by banning something that everyone agrees is not a necessity and frankly, is un-Indian in the first place. Who knows, we might take the first steps towards actual progress.
As an economist, I'm excited just thinking about all the money that consumers will save when there are no tobacco products to purchase. That money will circulate in more fruitful ways where we can actually take pride as a country. If we want to be true desh bhakts, let's start by stopping the epidemic that we universally agree will save lives.