New Delhi smokers coughing mad as city boss bans their fix

Smokers in New Delhi are having a collective nicotine fit. Ever since the Indian capital's chief minister, Sahib Singh Verma, made it his New Year's resolution officially to ban tobacco in public, smokers have been savouring their last legal puffs at the office and plotting how they can get through a normal day without lighting up in view. The ban started yesterday, and violators risk paying up to a 500 rupee (pounds 10) fine, equivalent to a week's average wage, if they are caught.

Elderly men, who often while away the winter afternoons by pulling their rope beds into a patch of sun in the alley and passing around a hookah, accosted Mr Verma in anger to demand that their tradition be respected. But he was adamant: no hookahs, no hubble-bubbles, no bidis (cheap leaf- wrapped smokes), no pipes - absolutely no nasty nicotine habit can be indulged within the city limits, except in private.

Pessimists predicted productivity would decline as addicts nipped out for their fix. From now, Delhi's smokers must stub out their cigarettes in offices, hospitals, cinemas, restaurants, theatres, schools, stadiums, hotels, banquet halls, railway stations, airports, and all public transport. Jaded smokers say they'll ignore the ban and, if caught, cough up a small bribe, less than the fine. A few smokers, mainly women who have been trying to quit, welcomed the laws.

Throngs lining the route yesterday to watch the Republic Day procession march towards the arch of India Gate seemed more jittery than usual. "Fifty years of freedom? Not really," said a business student, Ashwin Chandiok. "Today we can't even smoke outside. Well, they've just lost my vote."

Many residents ridicule the law, especially after environmentalists said last month that simply breathing the air of New Delhi was the rough equivalent of smoking 12 cigarettes a day. While the Health Minister, Harsh Vardhan, said at least 30 per cent of his budget went for treating smoking-related diseases, and that nearly 1 million deaths across India were linked to tobacco, smokers said their contribution to overall air pollution in New Delhi must be laughably small. Doctors at Delhi University blamed the poisoned air, which makes the number of respiratory patients 12 times higher than the national average, and said almost a third of New Delhi citizens suffer from some sort of respiratory complaint. At least 7,500 deaths in New Delhi each year are attributed to pollution.

"It's absurd to ape the West and ban cigarettes here," said Farah Singha, a chain-smoking air stewardess. "You go to New York and it looks like there is some invasion of afternoon streetwalkers, until you discover that it's just the secretaries hanging around outside to smoke during their coffee breaks. India's not like that. With all of Delhi a public place because so many people live in the streets, this ban is impossible to enforce."

Kiran Bedi, a former inspector-general of prisons, tended to agree. She outlawed tobacco three years ago at New Delhi's Tihar jail to try to improve health conditions, but found the 8,000 inmates would go to any lengths for a cigarette. "They resented my no-smoking rule terribly, although it was the best thing for them. They craved tobacco and would risk severe punishment for a single cigarette. Criminals would refer to tobacco as `the beloved'.

"I feared they might riot before they would comply with my new health regulations." Fires broke out when smokers rigged the prison wiring to light their illicit cigarettes after Ms Bedi banned matches as well. An anti-smoking campaign is about to be launched by volunteer agencies, but few expect it to make any real headway. Meanwhile, local environmentalists are concerned about the lack of enforcement of anti-pollution legislation already on the books. This has failed to curb an increase in New Delhi's vehicular pollution or hazardous industrial wastes. Loopholes abound: tens of thousands of kerosene-powered generators kick in daily during frequent power failures and must certainly pollute the air just as much as the ancient two-stroke engines on motor rickshaws or the dung fires that help warm the pavement-dwellers.

For now, the only legal smokers in New Delhi who can light up in public are sadhus, the wandering Hindu mystics who are allowed to pass their hashish-filled chillums with impunity. This week, they are the envy of the strung-out smokers.