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Tamil Nadu rocked by Gutkha scam. What you need to know

JODHPUR, INDIA - 16 FEBRUARY 2015: Indian vendor sells gutka to customer. Gutka has mild stimulant effect and is consumed by sucking and chewing. Post-processed with grain and texture.
A street vendor sells gutkha in Jodhpur.

The gutkha scam has been making headlines in Tamil Nadu, where senior officials including the health minister have been implicated in a multi-crore corruption scandal involving bribes paid by chewing tobacco companies.

Officials stand accused of accepting bribes paid by manufacturers of gutkha, a chewing tobacco mixture which has been banned in Tamil Nadu since 2013.  State Health Minister Dr C. Vijayabaskar, Director General of Police T K Rajendran and former Chennai Police Commissioner S. George are said to have taken bribes totalling Rs 40 crore (5.5 million USD) from MDM Gutkha Company, allowing the illegal sale of gutkha in the state.

The Central Bureau of Investigation (CBI) is holding five persons in custody at the time of writing. These include the directors and owner of MDM Gutkha Company, a Food Safety and Drug Administration official, and Superintendent of Central Excise and Customs. They mark the first arrests in the high-profile case. 

Last week the CBI raided around more than forty locations across Tamil Nadu and two other states. The residences of George, Rajendran, and Vijayabaskar were targeted in the sting.

“Officials stand accused of accepting bribes paid by manufacturers of gutkha, a chewing tobacco mixture which has been banned in Tamil Nadu since 2013”

The gutkha scam came out two years ago when an investigation into MDM Gutkha Company owner Madhava Rao by the Income Tax Department uncovered a diary entry allegedly detailing kickback payments to public officials. Rao is one of the five individuals now being held in CBI custody. An enquiry ensued, initially under the ambit of the Directorate of Vigilance and Anti-Corruption and then, at the behest of the Madras High Court, by the CBI.  

Information reportedly given by Rao under questioning by the CBI prompted the raids last week.

Gutkha, as with other forms of smokeless tobacco, is linked to a number of detrimental health effects. Oral cancer, in particular, is a major health consequence of smokeless tobacco use. Oral cancer is rising in incidence in India. It ranks as one of the three most common types of cancer on the subcontinent, with smokeless tobacco users accounting for ninety percent of oral cancer cases.

Efforts to control gutkha use in India have seen bans enacted in a number of states and union territories. Reports of efforts to circumvent the ban in Tamil Nadu is concerning reports – and the thorough investigation into the scam is vital and welcome news.

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