As one more budget session of the parliament approaches, some members of parliament (MPs) are gearing up for a campaign to prevent the government from imposing more taxes on “bidis” – local hand-rolled cigarettes.
Sources said 170 MPs have recently issued an official letter urging the government not to increase the taxes on bidis.
The lawmakers against raising taxes reportedly thought if the higher taxes are imposed on the local cigarettes, people employed in the industry – nearly 2.5m – may lose their jobs.
Anti-tobacco activists, however, said the lawmakers’ real interest lies in the fact that they consider the workers in the industry as a potential vote bank.
Over the last three years, the pro-bidi campaign ahead of placing the national budget in parliament has been launched around the same time.
Anti-tobacco activists have learned their lesson from three years of lobbying by the pro-bidi factions and launched a campaign of their own to convince 40 MPs to issue a letter recommending a tax hike on bidis.
Sources said the letter to the National Board of Revenue (NBR) recommended a 70% tax hike on tobacco products including cigarettes, bidis and jarda (chewing tobacco), and proposes supplementary duties (SD) on these items to be increased.
Anti-tobacco activists said over the years the industry had built a myth about millions of people being employed in the sector, to convince lawmakers and civil society they need to speak in favour of an industry that employs so many people.
US-based international non-government organisation, Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CTFK), recently conducted an independent study on the industry, which claims the number of workers is less than 85,000.
However, Dr Mizanur Rahman, chairman of the National Human Rights Commission (NHRC), Prof Mesbah Kamal of Dhaka University, Dr Piash Karim of Brac University and Information Minister Hasanul Haq Inu have all said the bidi industry employs millions and a tax hike may lead to many of losing their jobs.
Prof Mesbah Kamal said imposing more taxes on bidis would close down the industry and the market would be flooded with cheaper cigarettes.
He said: “Hundreds of bidi factories have already been shut down due to high taxes and hundreds of thousands of workers including women have become unemployed.”
Dr Mizanur Rahman said the state should protect the interests of the poor workers engaged in making bidis.
Drawing people’s attention to the plight of the workers, the NHRC chairman called upon the NBR to retract its decision to increase taxes on bidis.