Whether you are sitting at a tea stall or walking through a village the presence of tobacco is palpable. Tobacco stacks are piled up in houses, shops and even in filling stations. It is peak time for harvesting and selling tobacco in Lalmonirhat.
Although tobacco cultivation began decades back, in recent years it has boomed in this district, thanks to the chronic poverty of farmers and successful motivation of tobacco companies.
In the past, for generations, farmers produced paddy, wheat, vegetables and mustard. After fulfilling family needs, they sold out the surplus products. But rising production costs and low prices of the crops have kept them poor and in constant hardship.
Companies like British American Tobacco, Dhaka Tobacco, Abul Khayer, Akij, Nasir and Bengal took this as an opportunity for brisk business. They have set up offices and employed workers to lure farmers. There is no other industry here which can generate employment.
These companies regularly go from village to village, train farmers on tobacco cultivation, give them seeds and interest-free loans for tobacco cultivation. It works well as tobacco is now a major crop in the district.
Farmers predict the highest tobacco cultivation this year in Lalmonirhat. As estimated, tobacco is cultivated on about 50,000 hectares of land. However, the Department of Agricultural Extension (DAE) figure does not match with this. It claimed tobacco was cultivated on 26,500 hectares of land this year which was 10,250 hectares last year. Locals alleged that DAE, being influenced by the tobacco companies, manipulates the figure.
Manowar Hossaun, a farmer at Baninagar village of Kaliganj upazila says he never cultivated tobacco in the past but this year he was encouraged to cultivate it on his three acres of land where he used to grow paddy. Like him, Nazar Ali, Moslem Uddin, Sabur Miah and many others cultivated tobacco in their paddy grown lands for the first time this year.
About five thousand farmers in the district have enlisted their names as tobacco growers this year, says Kakina Union Ekota Farmers' Samity president Taher Ali.
Farmers at different villages say tobacco brings windfall profits for them, which gives them the incentive to cultivate it instead of other crops such as paddy. The tobacco companies, moreover, provide them with seeds, fertiliser and all other inputs and technical support to cultivate it. Farmers add that they never have problems selling their crops as the tobacco companies purchase these from their doorstep.
Ashraf Ali, a tobacco grower, for the last twenty years at Saptibari village at Aditmari upazila informs that many farmers started cultivating tobacco with the hope of earning windfall profits. “We the tobacco growers always get input and technical support from the tobacco companies, and tobacco brings solvency in the area,” he says.
Growing tobacco however, requires the use of pesticides to keep the crops insect-free. Tobacco growers Neyanat Ali, Hakim Mia, and others at Tiktikir Bazar village in Lalmonirhat sadar explain that huge amounts of pesticides used for killing pests in the tobacco fields is a great threat to the health of growers and their families.
“Sometime we take away empty bottles of pesticide for the home using them for keeping cooking oil because we are not aware of the dangers” says Neyamat, adding that many children have fallen sick because of indiscriminate use of pesticide in the tobacco fields.
Khabir Uddin, sub-assistant agriculture officer at Aditmari upazila says that a larger amount of pesticides are used in the tobacco fields compared to other crops.
Nur Islam of Sharpukur village in Aditmari Upazial cultivated tobacco on two acres of land this year on which he once cultivated paddy. “We get all kinds of support from the companies. They also assure us of buying our product,” he says.
He opines that farmers will reduce tobacco cultivation if the government provides them with the kind of support provided by tobacco companies. Mofizul, Shairful and many others echo the same view.
DAE Deputy Director Safayet Hossain, thinks the matter is more grave. He predicts a disastrous impact on food production if the cultivation of tobacco keeps increasing and substituting food crop cultivation. Immediate government intervention is needed he believes.
“We tried to discourage farmers, highlighting health and environmental hazards of tobacco, but it did not work due to the companies' encouragement,” he says, adding that the fertility of soil is also threatened as tobacco destroys its nutrients.
The health hazards and environment pollution are also becoming apparent. But farmers have little or no idea about the harmful impacts of tobacco on their health, land and environment.
“Skin diseases and breathing problems are unusually high among people,” says Dr Nabiur Rahman, Residential Medical Officer RMO in Lalmonirhat Sadar Hospital. He says the number of asthma and tuberculosis patients is rising steadily in hospitals and clinics. He fears a devastating effect on the district’s public health in the district.
Tobacco production has been so high that the poor farmers have started using it as an alternative to money. Now they can get various items just by giving tobacco leaves, not money. A man selling ice cream at Devpara village in Aditmari upazila on a bicycle, says many people give tobacco instead of money to buy ice cream. “I take it, as tobacco has a good price in the market.”
The government enacted a new law last year to check the proliferation of tobacco production, use of cigarette and other tobacco products. However, the ground reality is that both production of tobacco and use are on the rise.
Bangladesh is among the five most affected countries by tobacco in the world. On an average, 165 people die everyday due to tobacco consumption.
M Abul Kalam Azad is a senior reporter and S Dilip Roy is Lalmonirhat correspondent of The Daily Star.