Deadline for ban on gutka in plastic sachet stays

In a setback for chewing tobacco manufacturers, the Supreme Court Thursday declined to extend the March 1 deadline banning the marketing of tobacco products in plastic sachets.An apex court bench of Justices G.S Singhvi and A.K. Ganguly, however, said the central government’s rules prohibiting the plastic packaging, which was to come into force with immediate effect, will now be kept on hold till March 1.

The central rules prohibiting plastic sachets in the tobacco industry were notified on Feb 4 and were to come into force with immediate effect.

While extending the date for enforcing the rules, the apex court issued notice to the central government on the petition by the manufacturers challenging the measure.

The central government and NGOs involved in the matter have been given three weeks to file their responses. Another three weeks will be given to the tobacco manufacturers to file their replies to central government response. Thereafter, ten days time will be given for further filing of responses and replies. The matter will come up for hearing on April 13.

Earlier, Solicitor General Gopal Subramanium told the court that the central government has complied with its Dec 7, 2010 directions.

He told the court that in pursuance of its Dec 7 order, the National Institute of Public Health (NIPH) had conducted a comprehensive study which indicates that 86 percent of oral cancer cases in the world occur in India and of these, chewing tobacco was found to be the cause in 90 percent of the cases.

In yet another disturbing revelation, the court was told that NIPH study has found that 24 percent of school-going children are addicted to chewing gutka and pan masala.

Subramanium said that worst-affected people are from the lower social strata and they have to sell their belongings in the course of their treatment, which is expensive. This prompted the court to say that “any cancer treatment is expensive”.

The tobacco manufacturers, in their petitions, contended that the rules prohibiting the use of plastic sachets for packaging their products was arbiterary and discriminatory.

It said that when the draft of the rules were released to public for inviting suggestions or objections, there was no clause providing for banning the plastic sachets and it was included subsequently.

Senior counsel Ram Jethmalani, appearing for the tobacco manufacturers, said plastic sachets worth Rs.200 crores were lying with the manufacturers and were a drain on them.

When Jethmalani said that the ban has come all of sudden, Justice Singhvi said: “It is not sudden. On December 7, 2010 there is an order. The matter was heard for a sufficiently long time before the time was fixed for the ban.”

The petition contended that clause 5(d) imposing complete ban on the use of plastic sachets was inserted in the final rules and not in the draft rules (issued on Sep 17, 2009) against which objections were invited from the public.

It argued that the manner in which the environment ministry inserted the clause in the final rules was in “gross violation of the rules of natural justice”.

The petition said that if littering of plastic bags, packs and sachets were adding to pollution, then there is “no nexus or justification in distinguishing manufacturers/sellers/distributors of pan masala, gutka and tobacco from other manufacturers/sellers/distributors who use plastic for packaging”.

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