It has been more than a decade since the anti-smoking law came into force in India. But smokers in Calcutta, it is alleged, are as cavalier about smoking in public as always. Not that they would light up in the middle of a restaurant to risk being thrown out, but that is as far as they will concede. They show no new awareness of the evil effects of smoking, on themselves and on others, while it is reported that in Punjab, Himachal Pradesh and even Sikkim, together with extensive areas in the south, growing popular awareness and strict implementation of the 2003 law against pubic smoking have had excellent effect.
The dream of a smokeless Calcutta may have led to the recent police workshop regarding the implementation of the law. There are, of course, many practical difficulties about forcing a total ban on public smoking, including the frequency of small cigarette shops. But there is a larger question. What exactly is meant by public spaces? The law lists areas to which the public has access, such as restaurants, railway waiting rooms, auditoriums, buses and trams, libraries, schools and colleges, courts, government offices and so on. Nowhere does the law say that open spaces are also public spaces; roads, pavements, bus stops, to name some, do not come under the law. If people in Calcutta smoke in these spaces, even if they do so more than people in other cities, it does not prove that they are cavalier about the law, only that they are being stupid about health. So the next question would be: can they be asked not to smoke in open spaces even when no one objects? Is this a personal issue or a public one? Public health advice can ask people not to smoke; can it, by law, stop people from smoking in empty spaces? Is it the same thing as stopping a person from murdering another? Anti-smoking activists would probably say it is the same; but in the making of law and policy, common sense is perhaps as important as ideology and perfectionism, possibly more so.