Chandigarh’s ’smoke-free city’ campaign loses steam

July 13th, 2008 - 12:53 pm ICT by IANS  

By Jaideep Sarin
Chandigarh, July 13 (IANS) As Chandigarh marks one year of being officially declared India’s only ’smoke-free city’, the campaign has been gradually losing steam after initial hype and success. And activists blame the tobacco industry and even the health ministry for this. The city was officially declared ’smoke free’ - meaning that people could not smoke in public places or even at places where the public has any access - July 15 last year.

The city’s new tag was even endorsed by anti-smoking crusader and Health Minister Ambumani Ramdoss as a model for other cities and states to follow.

But the hype of getting strict with smokers seems to have literally gone up in smoke with the city police, health and other civic authorities showing open indifference to the concept.

The police registered just 1,860 cases in the entire year - most of them being done in the initial months of the smoking ban in the city.

Already, anti-smoking activists are blaming the ‘rich’ tobacco industry and official corruption for the slowdown of the smoke-free campaign.

“The tobacco industry wants to defeat any successful model of a smoke-free city so that the concept may not catch the imagination of other cities in the country,” alleges anti-smoking crusader Hemant Goswami, the man behind the ‘Smoke-free Chandigarh’ campaign.

“Understandably, if it happens, business interests of the industry would be severely hurt. This is a good enough reason for the tobacco industry to bribe government officials and influence them for inaction,” he said.

“Officials are slow-pedalling the drive deliberately under the influence of the tobacco lobby. For some strange reasons, officials concerned are pulling back from the campaign,” Goswami told IANS here.

The only silver lining was the response the smoke-free campaign got from residents initially.

Chandigarh’s tourism and public relations director and the city’s chief spokesman Vivek Atray, too, agrees that the initial momentum of the campaign got lost on the way.

“Initially the campaign saw a good response. Everyone in the city knows about the ban. At its peak, the campaign did very well last year. The implementation of the ban by local authorities like the police, health officials and municipal authorities has been lax,” Atray said.

In June, Goswami’s NGO - Burning Brain Society - filed nearly 200 criminal cases with the district magistrate against tobacco vendors selling tobacco illegally or within a radius of 100 yards of educational institutions.

“We regularly do an independent survey to check compliance levels and also to find any violations. We make sure that each violation is reported, notices are issued to the violators and the agencies take legal action. Last month, when we felt that the administration has become non-responsive, we filed nearly 500 police complaints to force them into action again,” said Goswami.

The Chandigarh smoke-free model is being projected by the union health ministry and other states as an example for other cities and states to follow. In fact, Goswami was invited by Ramadoss to his home state Tamil Nadu last year to help work out a campaign in Chennai.

Goswami is now upset even with the health ministry, which he says did not bother to push the Chandigarh smoke-free campaign further.

“They released millions of rupees to 11 other states for a similar campaign on the lines of the Chandigarh one but not a penny to the city that introduced the concept. Officials here also did not involve themselves in getting funds to further the concept. There is deliberate inaction on this wonderful concept,” Goswami claimed.

Chandigarh Tobacco Control Cell (CTCC) member A.P.S. Shergill, however, said that the year has been a roller-coaster ride for the campaign.

“Despite the low rate of penalization, compliance has been good at nearly 76 percent by all means,” Shergill said.

“One must remember that Chandigarh is the only place in the whole of the country where all restaurants and hotels provide a completely smoke-free environment and where each and every educational institute is free of all forms of tobacco,” added Kumar Abhimanyu, another CTCC member.

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