Paan, Pandemic and Public Offence

The process of preparing a paan is enchanting to watch. Cardamom, kattha (catechu), mukhwas, gulkand, supari (areca nut), choona (key lime) – all of this and more, are delicately enveloped into a heart-shaped betel leaf pinned by a single clove into a triangle called gilouri. From the lavish royal courts of Delhi to the friendly neighbourhood panwari shop, the paan culture of India has been intricately woven with its socio-cultural history.

The betel leaf has long been a part of India’s culture from the Rig Vedic tradition to the Mughal courts, where it symbolised a status symbol limited to auspicious occasions for the consumption of upper-class elites. With time, paan has evolved as a vehicle of socialisation between groups of men and women from different classes and communities.

Over the last century, the custom and practice of paan consumption has transformed and declined, relegating paan-chewing to an ‘unfashionable’ social taboo in the general imagination of the public. The roots of this prejudice against paan can be traced back to British colonial rule which introduced Eurocentric ideas of sanitation and hygiene through state policies and social norms. The postcolonial state in India has continued to promote such notions from time to time – like the rule on public spitting instated last year by the government.

In April 2020 as the COVID-19 pandemic slammed hard into India, the ministry of home affairs (MHA) released lockdown guidelines for the country which listed spitting in public places as a public offense under the Disaster Management Act, 2005.

This article looks at how this regulation brought into effect under an emergency situation – which is still ongoing – has impacted the paan and its culture a year later. What does the government’s move to make public spitting a cognizable offence mean for the miscellaneous cultural consumption of paan?

Paan – production and politics

I say ‘miscellaneous’ because paan is neither snack nor sweet, fruit or vegetable. However, the digestive preparation has been categorised as ‘food’ by the Food Standards and Safety act, 2006. Found from the ornate paandans of elite households to the corner panwaari or tapri shops, paan and its consumption across the country may have moved across classes and spaces, but it continues to retain some status as a luxury item of consumption vis-à-vis banned tobacco products (gutka and paan masala) that have been scientifically proven to be carcinogenic.

On one hand, the ban on these items has not impacted their sale significantly. On the other, the demand for betel leaf has suffered a considerable decline due to more portable, cheaper and better packaged products like paan masala, diverting the falling betel leaf production to paan masala factories instead of historic paan mandis or bazaars in UP, Bihar and Odisha. The price of a single sachet of paan masala has been Re 1 for several years now whereas the price of a single plain Mahoba paan, that is easily available as compared to other varieties from Odisha and Bengal, can vary between Rs 5 to Rs 10, the price at which a buyer can purchase five to ten sachets of tobacco products.

There are many reasons for the decreased demand for paan leaves across India over the last few decades. On the production side, betel leaf farming has proved to be more and more costly in terms of irrigation and falling prices for the farmers at Mahoba in Uttar Pradesh, India’s only ‘paan district’ since the last 500 years, which has been suffering from severe, periodic droughts. Although some state governments, like Madhya Pradesh, have launched schemes to encourage hi-tech betel-farming, the betel vine gardens continue to shrink in land holdings due to extreme weather and shortage of water.

On the consumption side, paan-chewing as a custom, which was once universally encountered in Northern parts of India, has taken a hit since it has been rendered ‘unfashionable’ in popular culture. Depictions in media like the famous Bollywood song Khaike paan banaras wala’ (Don, 1978) are key to understanding how representations of paan-chewing has been consumed by the public (appealing to middle class imagination mostly) as a cultural commodity that is also a social taboo, not to be consumed by ‘decent’ households. These media representations attach the notion of paan-chewing as a degraded activity to members of certain class like the daily wage labourer, the lower middle class or livelihoods shunned by moral society like sex-workers, criminals and vagrants.

Public spitting – pandemic and prohibition

Spitting, from betel-chewing or otherwise, came to be recognised as a threat to public health the worldwide outbreak of tuberculosis in the late 19th century. The COVID-19 pandemic has brought another global public health crisis more so in a global south country like India where public spitting has been turned into a punishable public offence in the lieu of the pandemic. Before the current pandemic however, national anti-spitting laws in the country have been hard to find and harder to implement, the exceptions being a handful of municipality by-laws in big metropolitans.

Also read: Public Spitting: Being in the Line of Spit and Spite

There exist only two laws at the Central level against spitting – the Factories Act, 1948 (Section 20),and the Indian Railways (Penalties for Activities Affecting Cleanliness in Railway Premises) Rules, 2012 (Rule 3, Clause(b)), which charge the offender a meagre sum of Rs 5 and Rs 250 fine respectively. At the state level, there are provisions of  municipal laws and by-laws across many states in India for penalising public spitting that have been implemented form time to time (Siddhanta Mishra, 2020).

After the MHA notification, Karnataka was the first state to ban paan-chewing in the light of the pandemic. Its health and family welfare department banned the chewing and spitting of paan and tobacco products, punishable with a jail term under the Sections 188, 268, 269 and 270 of IPC for “nuisance, disobedience and negligent act causing the spread of dangerous disease”. Many other states like Bihar, Jharkhand, Telangana, UP and Haryana followed suit.

To paan or not to paan

In an already declining sector, the “ban”  on spitting coupled with the previous ban on the sale of paan and paan-plus products, has hit the betel leaf farmers, paan mandis, paan godowns, paan bhattis (ovens) and paanwari-shop owners. Meanwhile tax-revenues on these products, which attract the highest tax-rates in the economy, continue to grow the fortunes of state treasuries as consecutive governments choose to ban the product instead of production, putting the entire burden of social and moral responsibility of consuming these ‘sinful’ products on citizens.

Paan consumption however, because of its history and cultural value, has escaped such taxation and labels. In fact, in the mushrooming paan-plus shops that serve betel leaf alongside tobacco products and condiment in urban and rural areas alike one can read the continuing status and lingering presence of the paan culture in India’s public spaces.

Over several decades, the government in India has shared a reluctant and ill-defined relationship with the cultural industry of paan. Since the advent of the Swachh Bharat campaign, public sanitation and hygiene have been actively pursued by the State armed with handful of existing anti-spitting and anti-littering laws. The new regulation on public spitting has been an ill-conceived policy under the umbrella of Swachh Bharat, designed to achieve behavioural change by imposing fines on offenders without taking into account the effects on those whose livelihoods depend on the betel-chewing market.

It is also interesting to note how foods at the margins of the majority’s platter get criminalised by law – whether it is beef or paan. With no change forthcoming in MHA’s directive one year since its sudden declaration, not just its production but also the notions that have built India’s paan culture continue to look at a bleak future in the post-Covid world.

Shriya Singh is a master’s student at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi.

Featured image credit: Pariplab Chakraborty