Governance Now - - BUTT SERIOUSLY - Geetanjali Min­has

Su­mi­tra Hooda Ped­nekar lost her hus­band to to­bacco ad­dic­tion. She has taken to court a vi­tal ques­tion: should a state-run life in­sur­ance firm like LIC invest in to­bacco firms?

It’s a ques­tion that needed ask­ing. is it kosher for a state (or a state-run en­ter­prise) to invest in prof­itable to­bacco com­pa­nies when it pro­fesses an anti-to­bacco stance, ed­u­cates peo­ple against to­bacco use, and ends up los­ing pro­duc­tive cit­i­zens to cancer and to­bacco-re­lated ill­nesses? su­mi­tra hooda ped­nekar, who lost her hus­band satish ped­nekar, a for­mer ma­ha­rash­tra min­is­ter, to cancer caused by to­bacco use has since be­come a com­mit­ted cam­paigner against to­bacco use in any form. and she is the lead pe­ti­tioner who (along with six oth­ers) has filed a PIL in the Bom­bay high court ask­ing whether state-run in­surer Life In­sur­ance Cor­po­ra­tion of India (LIC) can invest in shares of to­bacco com­pa­nies like itc and vst. The oth­ers, equally com­mit­ted, are two mem­bers of Tata Trusts, which runs cancer hos­pi­tals, three em­i­nent doc­tors, and a BJP MLA of ma­ha­rash­tra.

But this isn’t the only proac­tive move she has made against the habit-form­ing sub­stance and those who ped­dle it. in 2012, in re­sponse to a ban on gutka sales, man­u­fac­tur­ers had started is­su­ing ads in news­pa­pers, grum­bling over the ban and claim­ing that gutka was less harm­ful than cig­a­rettes. The ads even said that 14 states con­sid­ered cig­a­rettes were healthy! and in­vok­ing vic­tim­hood, they said that sev­eral small-scale gutka man­u­fac­tur­ers were be­ing ru­ined by the ef­forts of ci­garette com­pa­nies. Su­mi­tra coun­tered with a let­ter to the edi­tors of the news­pa­pers that car­ried those ads: loaded more with ev­i­dence and rea­son than emo­tion, it ex­posed the hol­low­ness of the gutka man­u­fac­tur­ers claims.

she cam­paigns at a per­sonal level too: she is known to ap­proach young peo­ple who are smok­ing or oth­er­wise us­ing

to­bacco to tell them of the health risks the habit en­tails – some­thing that she knows too well.

“My hus­band started off as a chain smoker. When he gave up smok­ing, he started chew­ing to­bacco – gutka and to­bacco-laced paan. he al­ways thought he would give up to­bacco one day,” says the 60-year-old su­mi­tra, dressed in off-white cot­ton palaz­zos and a long, printed kurta, in her and­heri apart­ment. That was not to be. satish ped­nekar, a for­mer ma­ha­rash­tra min­is­ter of home and labour, died of throat cancer in 2011. This was a man who had a brush once with cancer and was be­lieved to have sur­vived it. “my hus­band al­ways had a sen­si­tive throat and would keep cough­ing. I’d tell him, ‘Let’s get it checked, but he’d brush it off, say­ing ev­ery­thing is fine...’ He had come out of cancer and we thought ev­ery­thing was fine. Sud­denly, af­ter three­four months, he had sec­ondary in­fec­tion in the liver. he was in stage iv. in three months, he passed away. his death shook me,” she says.

The time she spent car­ing for him in hos­pi­tals ex­posed her to the trauma cancer pa­tients and their fam­i­lies un­dergo. al­though her hus­band was in the spe­cial ward, she would visit the gen­eral wards to see what was hap­pen­ing. “What I saw was pa­thetic,” she says. “Fun­gus-in­fested feed­ing tubes, cancer pa­tients housed chock-a-block, their fam­i­lies crammed in the wards and squat­ting out­side as well – all this left me alarmed. i also saw many cancer-af­flicted chil­dren, their faces dis­torted, mouths and tongues dam­aged, un­able to speak. It was hor­ri­fy­ing.” She re­mem­bers a young crick­eter, 24-25 years old, who said he’d only smoked for a year or so but was downed by cancer. no one is spared, whether one is ac­tive or not, she con­cludes, warn­ing women in par­tic­u­lar that smok­ing af­fects re­pro­duc­tive sys­tems very badly.

su­mi­tra’s grand­fa­ther and fa­ther were smok­ers, and so was an un­cle who died of throat cancer. her grand­fa­ther, the vice-prin­ci­pal of the Bri­tishrun King Ge­orge’s royal in­dian mil­i­tary school in ajmer (now the rashtriya mil­i­tary school), and was known as “hookah­wala sahib”. He died of throat cancer. Her army of­fi­cer fa­ther was a chain smoker who gave up the habit. her own ex­pe­ri­ence with smok­ing was not so good so she quit. “With all my friends smok­ing, i was fas­ci­nated by the sight of a ci­garette held be­tween long fin­gers with painted nails. I tried smok­ing a cou­ple of times but gave up be­cause i didn’t like the taste – also, i burnt my lips,” she says. Peer pres­sure and the pro­jec­tion of the habit as stylish – whether as a sig­ni­fier of re­bel­lion, cool, machismo or as many at­tributes as peo­ple would care to choose for them­selves – are of course the rea­sons peo­ple take up smok­ing in the first place, only to be un­able to quit even if they try. “not ev­ery smoker has or gets cancer, but for a smoker, the chances of get­ting cancer are high in­deed. peo­ple gen­er­ally quit smok­ing af­ter get­ting cancer, not be­fore,” she says. “Once you are ad­dicted, you do not quit cig­a­rettes – they quit you one day.”

Su­mi­tra’s first foray into a pub­lic cam­paign against to­bacco be­gan when dr pankaj chaturvedi of the Tata me­mo­rial hospi­tal, who was treat­ing her hus­band, started the voice of To­bacco vic­tims (vov) cam­paign in 2009. in 2012, she was awarded its first ‘Best care Giver award’. The vov, of which many doc­tors are mem­bers, en­cour­ages cancer vic­tims and those who have been left bereft by the dis­ease tak­ing away loved ones to con­front lead­ers and de­mand that they en­act and im­ple­ment strong to­bacco con­trol laws. “This ap­pealed to me, be­cause not only the pa­tient, his sur­vivors are equal suf­fer­ers,” she says. She would take part in the cam­paign ac­tiv­i­ties, at­tend sem­i­nars, par­tic­i­pate in sen­si­ti­sa­tion work­shops and pro­grammes in the ma­ha­rash­tra assem­bly, write to min­istries on cancer warn­ings, vat in­creases, and bans on gutka and chew­ing to­bacco. To­day, dr chaturvedi is one of the co-pe­ti­tion­ers in su­mi­tra’s case against LIC in­vest­ing in to­bacco com­pa­nies.

Warn­ing bells about in­sur­ers rang in the cam­paign­ers’ minds when cases came up of firms not warn­ing pol­i­cy­buy­ers that they would not be com­pen­sated if they should con­tract cancer. From there on, they caught on to the fact that LIC in­vests in to­bacco com­pa­nies, which hap­pen to be ex­tremely prof­itable. The ques­tion­able ethics of the prac­tice piqued them, and they de­cided to de­mand ex­pla­na­tions. With the state be­ing such a large en­tity, quite of­ten one wing doesn’t know what the other is up to, and in the ab­sence of a

“Not ev­ery smoker has or gets cancer, but for a smoker, the chances of get­ting cancer are high in­deed. Peo­ple gen­er­ally quit smok­ing af­ter get­ting cancer, not be­fore,” she says. “Once you are ad­dicted, you do not quit cig­a­rettes – they quit you one day.”

uni­fied pol­icy, the LIC (which func­tions un­der the fi­nance min­istry) con­tin­ues to earn through in­vest­ment in to­bacco while the health min­istry cries it­self hoarse warn­ing of the ill-ef­fects of to­bacco use. (de­spite re­peated at­temps, Gov­er­nance Now could not get LIC’S com­ments.)

“There was no re­sponse from min­istries. To have our voice heard, we thought of go­ing to court and so, peo­ple of dif­fer­ent back­grounds got to­gether. our ba­sic aim is to con­vince the court and ob­tain an or­der on dis­in­vest­ment of gov­ern­ment agen­cies in itc. This is the min­i­mum we ex­pect. it will send out a pos­i­tive mes­sage,” she says. With no lawyer will­ing to take up the case be­cause of the strong to­bacco lobby, they were wor­ried if their case would be taken up at all. Fi­nally, MZM Le­gal, a mum­bai-based prac­tice, took up their case. “Thank God, the ju­di­ciary is still free and open and not un­der pres­sure from any­one. if it is the liveli­hood of to­bacco com­pa­nies, then da­wood also must be given a li­cence, be­cause drugs are the liveli­hood of un­der­world. at any cost you can­not trade to­bacco. as a gov­ern­ment agency, LIC should not trade to­bacco,” she says.

There’s an ironic spin to ap­ply­ing a line from a ci­garette ad of the 1960-70s, aimed at suc­cess­ful women – “You’ve come a long way, baby!” – to Su­mi­tra. But there’s some res­o­nance there, com­ing as she does from as­san, a village in ro­htak district, haryana, a state no­to­ri­ous for its skewed sex ra­tio. she was re­bel­lious right from childhood. much against the wishes of her or­tho­dox grand­fa­ther, she brought home a pair of ghunghroos to learn kathak while in school. her grand­fa­ther threw them out. But she kept up her in­ter­est in dance and the arts; in school, she was the first girl ever to take part in the mono-act­ing com­pe­ti­tion. at the Banasthali vidyapeeth in ra­jasthan, where she later stud­ied, she learnt horse-rid­ing.

she was also an ncc cadet and com­pleted cour­ses for all three cer­tifi­cates that the corps of­fers. She learnt to use para­chutes, and par­tic­i­pated in two

“We have both in­her­ited her go-get­ter traits. Our mother is very sup­port­ive and does not treat us any dif­fer­ent from boys. She is the force and the rea­son be­hind ev­ery­thing we do,” says Samik­sha, and Bhumi de­scribes their mother as “so­cially aware, evolved, dy­namic and in­spir­ing”.

Repub­lic Day pa­rades. Later, she took lessons for a pri­vate pi­lot’s li­cence on a gov­ern­ment schol­ar­ship at Karnal Fly­ing club, but gave up mid­way as her legs were too short to al­low her to qualify for fly­ing. “I was a rebel and bold and didn’t con­firm to so­ci­etal boundaries. In col­lege, I ma­jored in dance,” she says. That was her way of tri­umph­ing over the sup­pres­sion of a childhood dream. in marriage too, she made her own choice: as a gen­eral sec­re­tary of the na­tional stu­dents union of india (nsui), she met her fu­ture hus­band, who was then a mem­ber of the Youth congress. They mar­ried much later, though, in 1988.

af­ter grad­u­a­tion, she be­came the first Haryanvi an­nouncer on All India ra­dio, si­mul­ta­ne­ously work­ing for do­or­dar­shan too. her pro­gramme was a hit; be­sides, she joined a univer­sity of Wis­con­sin team that was mak­ing a film on ru­ral india, serv­ing as their trans­la­tor and as­sis­tant direc­tor. it went on to win the Blue Rib­bon Award. Later, she was cast by renowned direc­tor s sukhdev in a doc­u­men­tary on in­dian po­tash Ltd. When he passed away, the pro­ject went to shyam Bene­gal, with whom she ended up do­ing three films. Later, she set up a co­op­er­a­tive so­ci­ety with some friends, took a gov­ern­ment loan and pro­duced the first Haryanvi film. Af­ter that, ‘San­jhi’, a film on Haryana cul­ture fol­lowed. she also acted in two Haryanvi films.

a cham­pion of so­cial con­cerns of her times, ped­nekar is a strong ad­vo­cate for equal rights for women. “There are only two castes – men and women. While a man thinks woman are in­fe­rior, man can break, but a woman will never break. Girls must be fearless. ac­tu­ally ed­u­ca­tion plays a big part. my fam­ily was ed­u­cated and pro­gres­sive, but the at­ti­tude of so­ci­ety was not,” she says. she re­calls how there was an at­tempt to kid­nap her when she was in col­lege; she how­ever had the pres­ence of mind and the strength to fend off her as­sailants, throw a brick at them, and raise an alarm till they fled. “Noth­ing has ever scared me.”

su­mi­tra says her hus­band was quite pro­gres­sive, and that helped. When they were ex­pect­ing their first child, the fam­ily yearned to have a son and there were sug­ges­tions that she go to the uk for pre-natal di­ag­nos­tics. how­ever, the cou­ple re­sisted it. “my hus­band was a very good soul,” she says. “He loved me so much that he be­came very pos­ses­sive. he had put a con­di­tion that i will not work. This was a dilemma and very frus­trat­ing for me, be­cause i was used to do­ing many dif­fer­ent things. I was rest­less.” But she kept ven­tur­ing into lit­tle things like sup­ply­ing veg­eta­bles to hos­pi­tals and can­teens. Later, she sup­plied tus­sar sal­war-kameezes to shop­pers stop till it shut down af­ter the mum­bai se­rial blasts in 1993. she then mar­keted in­ter­na­tional cos­met­ics and health­care brands, be­com­ing their top re­cruiter and trainer.

Su­mi­tra’s grand­fa­ther and fa­ther were smok­ers, and so was an un­cle who died of throat cancer. Her grand­fa­ther, the vi­ceprin­ci­pal of the Bri­tishrun King Ge­orge’s Royal In­dian Mil­i­tary School in Ajmer (now the Rashtriya Mil­i­tary School), was known as “hookah­wala sahib”. He died of throat cancer.

Life for her has changed tremen­dously af­ter her hus­band passed away. she says her hus­band had been in the con­struc­tion busi­ness, but she has been un­able to ben­e­fit much from it and feels short­changed by his part­ners. some prop­erty in­vest­ments have how­ever turned out right, and she is com­fort­ably off with

some rental in­come and the money the cos­met­ics busi­ness brings in. she is happy that her chil­dren have been suc­cess­ful. The elder daugh­ter, Bhumi, has won many awards for her role in her de­but film ‘Dum La­gake Haisa’, and younger daugh­ter samik­sha is study­ing law in delhi. “We have both in­her­ited her goget­ter traits. our mother is very sup­port­ive and does not treat us any dif­fer­ent from boys. she is the force and the rea­son be­hind ev­ery­thing we do,” says samik­sha, and Bhumi de­scribes their mother as “so­cially aware, evolved, dy­namic and in­spir­ing”.

in the late 1980 and 1990s, as part of her cos­met­ics and health­care busi­ness, su­mi­tra mo­ti­vated some 1,5002,000 women to take up sales, in the process turn­ing them into lead­ers who mo­ti­vated other women. This was at a time when the num­ber of work­ing women was rather small. “even when a woman earned ₹1,000 ex­tra per month, it gave her ex­tra power,” she says. “most of these women i mo­ti­vated are still work­ing.”

next on her agenda is again a women-re­lated is­sue: that of hous­ing colonies in mum­bai not let­ting young, sin­gle women rent houses. some­times, these women are forced to get fake marriage cer­tifi­cates. The prob­lem is that hous­ing so­ci­eties make up their own rules bar­ring house own­ers from rent­ing them to sin­gle men and women. “on the one hand we say our girls are pre­cious, we should ed­u­cate them and save them, and on the other hand we are throw­ing them to the wolves,” she says. “a girl i know was stay­ing alone in a build­ing which had gone for re­de­vel­op­ment. she con­tin­ued to stay there with­out elec­tric­ity be­cause she was not get­ting a place to live in a de­cent hous­ing so­ci­ety. The reg­is­trar of so­ci­eties must come with a rule where sin­gle women are not re­fused houses.” su­mi­tra, who is now the chair­per­son of her hous­ing colony, and says how, long ago, there was an ob­jec­tion to her let­ting out a flat to a woman who was sin­gle. “The lady was navy of­fi­cer – a cen­tral gov­ern­ment em­ployee – and yet there were ob­jec­tions,” she says. But she pre­vailed. she says the reg­is­trar of so­ci­eties should change the rules to en­sure that such prej­u­dices are not al­lowed to thrive.

Mean­while, she says the fight against to­bacco will con­tinue – as will the case for LIC dis­in­vest­ing in to­bacco com­pa­nies. “since the to­bacco lobby is very strong, peo­ple told me to stay away and not in­vite trou­ble,” she says. “But i am not de­terred or scared. it is my call­ing. What­ever has to hap­pen will hap­pen. if ever i have com­pro­mised in life, it was for my fam­ily – my hus­band and my daugh­ters. it was my choice and not com­pul­sion. Yet i was do­ing many things. now noth­ing scares me.”


Of late, Su­mi­tra has also taken up the cause of sin­gle peo­ple who are re­fused ac­com­mo­da­tion on rent in hous­ing colonies that have drawn up rules against un­mar­ried ten­ants. She says the reg­is­trar of so­ci­eties should bar colonies from mak­ing such rules.

Cour­tesy: su­mi­tra hooda Ped­nekar

Su­mi­tra with her hus­band Satish Ped­nekar; im­ages from films she has worked in or pro­duced

Cour­tesy: su­mi­tra hooda Ped­nekar

Su­mi­tra Ped­nekar, as an NCC cadet, re­ceiv­ing para wing af­ter suc­cess­ful com­ple­tion of jumps and train­ing from Ma­jor Gen­eral HK Bak­shi, direc­tor-gen­eral of NCC, in 1976

Pho­tos: Geetanjali min­has

Cour­tesy: su­mi­tra hooda Ped­nekar

Su­mi­tra Hooda Ped­nekar with prime min­is­ter Indira Gandhi af­ter par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Repub­lic Day pa­rade

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