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Great Indian Paan caught in health vs livelihood battle. Ban hurting magahi betel, areca nut

Over 55 per cent of the world’s betel vine and areca nut—the ingredients that go into making Paan or betel quid—are produced in India.

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A popular Hindi riddle attributed to the celebrated 12thcentury man-about-town and poet Amir Khusro asks—‘What goes in green, and comes back red?’ It is one of the earliest references in medieval Hindavi literature to the almost ubiquitous and very Indian habit of Paan consumption.

Depending on which side you are on, this areca nut, betel leaf, catechu and slaked lime com­­­bination is either an integral part of the Indian tradition or a carcinogen.

It is both celebrated as a breath-freshener, stimulant and even an aphrodisiac in Ayurvedic texts, and pilloried as a dangerous addictive preparation at the centre of a public health emergency as well as a civic nuisance responsible for the defacement of public spaces, streets and offices.

Over 55 per cent of the world’s betel vine and areca nut—the ingredients that go into making Paan or betel quid—are produced in India.  Particularly in agrarian states of the East, such as West Bengal, Assam, Bihar and the North East. They are a lucrative source of income and have been designated for trade under the ODOP (One District One Product) initiative. But increasing regulation and in some cases, even outright bans on betel quid in several countries, coupled with public health concerns relating to oral cancer, have led to declining markets for Paan products.

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A rich history

Paan, called betel quid in English, refers to the combination of three distinct items—areca nut, which is the seed of the Areca palm (Areca catechu), the betel leaf, which is the leaf of a different plant, the betel vine (Piper betle) and slaked lime. The bright red colour of the spittle that is produced when chewing Paan comes from the addition of catechu, or Kattha, an astringent acacia bark extract, which serves as a flavour enhancer.

Recent times have seen the inclusion of additional ingredients such as khimam-flavoured tobacco and other spices. The areca nut has addictive properties and is a stimulant—a mild narcotic whose effects and flavour are enhanced by the betel leaf.

It is widely consumed not only in India, but has historically been a part of cultures across vast parts of South and Southeast Asia, and even as far away as Taiwan, China and Micronesia, where it was the most commonly consumed as a stimulant before the introduction of tobacco.

Areca palm cultivation and consumption date back thousands of years in South Asian history. Today, India remains one of the biggest producers and consumers of both the betel vine and areca nut. According to statistics by the Food and Agricultural Organization (FAO), India accounts for over 60 per cent of the world’s areca nut production, producing over 770 thousand tonnes in 2017, followed by Myanmar, Indonesia and Bangladesh.

Some of the highest quality areca nuts are produced in Northeast India, in a few districts of Arunachal Pradesh and Assam. Arunachal Pradesh’s Changlang, with support from institutions like the National Bank for Agriculture and Rural Development (NABARD), has promoted cultivation of the organic and vibrant-yellow Changlang areca nut. Meanwhile, Assam’s Hailakandi has designated areca nut as their targeted export product under the ODOP scheme. Apart from Hailakandi, a second district in Assam, Karimganj, has designated by-products of areca cultivation—such as leaf plates—as their ODOP product.

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Conflicting cultural legacy

The other ingredient of Paan—the leaf from the Piper betle vine—is grown in West Bengal, Bihar, and the Northeast, where over 40 different varieties are produced. This includes the Magahi Paan leaf, which is a sweet, flavourful variety local to the Magadh region of Bihar. It was recognised with a Geographical Indication (GI) Tag in 2017.

The Magahi betel variety is highly lucrative and boasts of stable demand. As of 2014, it was cultivated on over 450 hectares of land in the districts of Nawada, Aurangabad and Nalanda in the Magadh region of Bihar. This year, Nawada notified the Magahi Paan leaf as its designated ODOP product. In fact, as part of the recognition of the Magahi Paan, IndiaPost even issued a special stamp and postal cover in June commemorating it.

The designation of areca nut and Magahi Paan as ODOP products raise several interesting issues. On one hand, Paan consumption is an integral part of our culture—celebrated in poetry, literature, traditional medicine and even in religion.

But on the other, this is a product that is actively discouraged by the health ministry as well as global bodies like the World Health Organization (WHO). Betel leaf import is restricted or banned entirely by several countries, including the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Qatar and Singapore. ‘World over, including in most of South Asia, Paan consumption is declining, particularly among younger people who prefer tobacco.

Over four lakh farmers are dependent on areca nut or betel vine cultivation for a living and the success of the Magahi betel leaf in recent years has greatly supplemented agricultural income in Nawada.

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Health vs livelihood

The ill effects of Paan consumption have been widely documented in medical literature. It stains and ruins teeth beyond repair, is a leading cause of oral cancer and dental problems, aggravates pre-existing medical conditions and has a long-term detrimental impact on almost all organs when consumed regularly.

Paan spittle and the bright-red stains it leaves are responsible for disfiguring most of urban India and creating a civic nuisance leading major cities like Mumbai to ban the act and impose heavy fines. Paan stains are an especially common eye sore in government offices and public places in small-town India. This nuisance has prompted ingenious techniques, such as adorning walls with ‘religious’ tiles to prevent spitting. Some states have even banned products like ‘gutka’ (chewing tobacco) and Paan masalas that include tobacco with betel quid.

The State has to navigate the thin line between regulating one of the leading causes of oral cancer and ensuring the livelihoods of millions of farmers, Paan sellers and other people in the betel value chain. The recently released National Family Health Survey (NFHS-5) round data included for the first time questions about female tobacco and other addictive substance usage. It revealed that Paan remains a widely consumed product, particularly among women and lower income groups as it is one of the few cheap and culturally accepted forms of stimulant consumption in India.

While usage is declining, newer combinations of betel quid with spices, tobacco and other ‘masalas’ have emerged in the market and continue to be consumed despite discouragement and strict regulation. What complicates matters further is the increasing number of countries that are banning or regulating this market, in turn diminishing export avenues available for these ODOP products.

District Bar Code is a series on the One District One Product (ODOP) scheme by the government of India. Read all the articles here.

Adhiraj Parthasarathy works in public policy and the development sector and has worked on various district-level programs and initiatives. Views expressed are personal.

(Edited by Zoya Bhatti)

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