Thursday, October 23, 2008

On the smokers' trail in Delhi

India recently introduced a nationwide ban on smoking in public spaces. The BBC's Geeta Pandey joined an enforcement team in the capital, Delhi, to see if the new law is being taken seriously.

On a raid with Delhi's anti-tobacco officers

At New Delhi railway station, signboards now announce that it's a smoke-free zone.

"Smoking and spitting are strictly prohibited in this area," the boards say.

This is one of India's biggest railway stations and is used by nearly half a million people daily. Thousands of people crowd the platforms.

I'm here with a team of anti-tobacco enforcers from the Delhi authorities who are looking for people violating the ban on smoking in public places which came into effect on 2 October.

It covers an exhaustive list of places which are defined as public.

Surprise visits

"We are yet to do a review of how the ban's doing, but we've got positive reports from various states and it's quite satisfactory," says Dhiraj Singh, a health ministry official.

In Delhi, officials say, they are working hard to enforce the ban.

Anti-smoking squads pay surprise visits to restaurants and pubs, bars and offices, hop inside buses and raid the railway stations.

Taxi driver Babu
Taxi driver Babu says he will smoke when no one's watching

The team this afternoon at New Delhi station is headed by Dr RP Vashishth. He says since the ban, fewer people are lighting up in public.

"Now that a lot of awareness has been created in the country, now that the raiding squads are going from place to place, the violations have come down in numbers.

"The government of Delhi has declared the city to be totally smoke-free by 2009. So we are going in phases, to ensure the ban is complied with. We are here to enforce the rules, to see that there are no violations."

The first catch of the day is a woman sitting in a crowd who has just lit up a beedi - a small hand-rolled cigarette common in India. The enforcement team swoops.

It's clear she has not heard of the ban. She folds her hands and apologises. She is let off with a warning - don't ever smoke in public again.

"Unlike in England where legal awareness is high and compliance is high, in India awareness and literacy are very low, so it's important to create awareness," explains Dr Vashishth.


Our next offender is a taxi driver, Babu.

"Don't you know it's illegal to smoke in public? You'll have to pay a fine of 200 rupees ($4)," Dr Vashishth chastises him.

"Sorry sir, I don't have 200 rupees. I'm a poor man. Please give me a concession," Babu pleads.

Dr RP Vashishth
Dr Vashishth says fewer people are smoking in public since the ban

Dr Vashishth advises him to quit smoking. "It's not good for your health or that of the others around you," he tells him.

Babu nods in agreement. He is let off with a reduced fine of 30 rupees.

But as soon as the raiding squad leaves, he makes his scepticism known.

"I respect the team here. They know I don't have much money so they reduced the fine for me. I know smoking is banned here, but what can I do? I'm addicted. As to whether I'll smoke in public in future, I'll just have to be careful. If no one's watching, I will."

The next man the raiding squad catches is visibly angry. He refuses to give his name to the officers and begins to argue with them.

The officers threaten to arrest him and send him to jail. In the end, he gives in. He has to borrow money from a friend to pay the fine.

"There are people from different sections of society. You have to fine them accordingly. You can't expect everyone to pay 200 rupees," says Dr Kamaljeet Singh Bansal, who is part of the raiding team.


"Sometimes we encounter hostility too. People get violent. Then we have to take help from the police. Most offenders comply once the police arrive," he says.

As the team is coming to the end of their shift, they chance upon an old man smoking a cigarette.

Mr Moitra (left) being fined by a member of the anti-smoking squad
Mr Moitra says he will never smoke in public again

"I didn't know I couldn't smoke even in the open area," the man, BN Noitra says. "There is no board here, nothing that tells us that we can't smoke here. But these officials came and fined me 50 rupees," he says.

"It was a mistake. I'm sorry I will not do it again," he says.

As the anti-smoking raids have become a regular feature in many Delhi areas in the past fortnight, the smokers are finding out the hard way that lighting up in public can be a very expensive proposition.

For the raiding squad, it has been a successful day - they have been able to get the message across to the smokers that the ban is here to stay.

It is being taken seriously, at least in Delhi.

Watch video:


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