Chaudhuri’s proposed piece of legislation is sitting as comfortably in the stack of government files, unmoving.
Sources said last week, Laloo Prasad and Chaudhuri had a brief exchange on the health minister’s proposal, which had been prepared after the department was informed of reports by its own agencies and independent organisations like the Indian Medical Association (IMA) that suggested gutkha and khaini are causing a large number of cancer cases in Bihar.
“We sensed the need to launch a campaign,” said Dr Ajay Kumar, IMA president in Patna. Chaudhuri drew up a draft notification for the ban in June where the list of tobacco products to be prohibited was expanded to include khaini.
“Ban khaini' How can you'” Laloo Prasad asked his health minister, looking at him impishly. “It is a Bihari way of stimulating thought. It’s a kick nothing else can match,” he said.
Ironically, when former Union health minister C.P. Thakur had moved to ban gutkha, Laloo Prasad’s party, the RJD, stood behind him against the tobacco lobby. This time, he and his khaini have tied the party’s hands.
That is not the reason, though, which is being cited for shelving the Bill. Chaudhuri said his ministry is assessing if the ban will result in losses for the tobacco growers of Bihar, most of whom are from his own caste.
His deputy, Akhilesh Singh, said tobacco is grown in at least six Bihar districts — Vaishali, Sitamarhi, Saharsha, Madhepura, Motihari and Champaran.
“It is grown near the riverine stretches of north Bihar districts normally branded fallow and unoccupied for long. Most of the cultivation is unauthorised as the land is disputed. If you snatch this from farmers, it is bound to hit the ballot box,” said a senior bureaucrat.
Around 30 MLAs from north Bihar opposed the ban. “We have therefore been forced to sit on this for some time, reflect and send it to the advocate-general for an opinion on whether we could pass the Bill keeping khaini out,” Singh said. “When the legal opinion is made available to us, we will clear the ban. But on khaini we are helpless.”
A political contemporary said: “Khaini became a means for Laloo Yadav to strike a conversation with ordinary people in the mid-eighties when he was trying to get a foothold. How can he forget this'” Taking khaini out of Bihar is like taking Bihar out of Laloo.