Mumbai, 16th February, 2017: It's a proven fact that millions of innocent young lives are saved by a law named COTPA, requiring tobacco brands to display graphic warnings on 85% of their packaging surface. Naturally, India's tobacco barons – mercenary drug lords whose business consists of spreading tobacco-addition among youths -- are lobbying for dilution of this law and hunting for reliefs from court. But why are all the tobacco barons filing petitions in Karnataka High Court in particular, instead of their own states? Of all the high courts that are available to them, why Karnataka?
Why is Karnataka High Court entertaining them and giving them red-carpet treatment despite lack of jurisdiction?
And why is Supreme Court – the Indian citizen's last hope -- looking the other way and allowing trhis forum-hunting?
These are uncomfortable questions, bordering on criminal contempt. But, with millions of lives at stake, one is compelled by conscience to raise such questions publicly.
|Is Karnataka High Court an exclusive club for tobacco manufacturers from all over India to congregate?|
On 4th February, Advocate K V Dhananjay wrote this letter to the Chief Justice of Karnataka High Court, Chief Justice of India, the Union Law Minister and the Prime Minister, protesting the preferential treatment being meted out to the tobacco-wallahs, muzzling those who seek to represent on behalf of millions of victims of tobacco, whom COTPA seeks to protect.
CONSIDER THE FACTS PUT FORTH IN ADV. DHANANJAY'S LETTER:
- ITC Limited is the largest cigarette manufacturer in India. It is a registered and a publicly traded company. It has its registered office at Kolkata, West Bengal. It wished to challenge the constitutional validiry of this 85% pictorial warning regulation upon its cigarette packs. It did not approach the Calcutta High Court, however. It instead chose the Karnataka High Court. Its Writ Petition to the Karnataka High Court says that it has a warehouse within the jurisdiction of the Karnataka High Court [Writ Petition No. 103356 of 2016]. The only respondents are policy respondents, the Central Government, at New Delhi. Obviously, ITC Limited has warehouses in several other States as well, and this petitioner is clueless on why ITC Limited chose this particular High Court.
- Godfrey Philips India Ltd. is a leading cigarette company in India. It has its registered office at Mumbai, Maharashtra. It did not move the Bombay High Court, it also chose the Karnataka High Court [Writ Petition No. 103391 of 2016] - on the ground that there was a warehouse within the jurisdiction of the Karnataka High Court. Again, the only respondents are policy respondents in New Delhi.
- VST Industries Ltd is another leading cigarette company in India. It has its registered office at Hyderabad, Telangana. Curiously, it did not move the Hyderabad High Court at all. Instead, it also sought the Karnataka High Court [Writ Petition No. 103417 of 2016]. Expectedly, they had a godown within the jurisdiction of this High Court. The only respondents are policy respondents in New Delhi.
- Ghodawat Industries (I) Pvt. Ltd. is a leading chewing tobacco manufacturer in India. It has its registered office at Kolhapur, Maharashtra. It did not choose the Bombay High Court to fight the 85% pictorial warning. Curiously, it too came down to the Karnataka High Court [Writ petition No. 100996 of 2016]. It has a factory within the jurisdiction of this High Court, it said. And, the only respondents are policy respondents in New Delhi.
- Then, there is a body known as the Tobacco Institute of India, which is a registered Company. Its members are from the different segments of the tobacco trade in India; it advocates for the protection of the tobacco trade in India. It has its registered office in New Delhi. It too wanted to challenge the 85% pictorial warning. It did not choose the Delhi High Court, however. It travelled all the way down to the Karnataka High Court. Having a member or more from Karnataka was its ground to seek this High Court. Also, the only respondents are policy respondents from New Delhi.
- There are 24 High Courts spread across India, with equal power under our Constitution. And, the largest tobacco traders undoubtedly have warehouses or factories at numerous places in India. Assuming that the tobacco companies and tobacco interest groups thought that they had the legal freedom to choose any High Court in this country, it is an extraordinary and inexplicable quirk of chance that they all chose the same High Court this time -- the Karnataka High Court.
- Separately, another petition to the Karnataka High Court was by a Bangalore Advocate [Writ Petition No.56789 of 2014),who says to the High Court that he smokes and still keeps good health. He says that the pictorial warnings have prevented him from leading a happy and a normal life; he has a constitutional right against pictorial warnings, he says. He says that these gruesome images were defamatory to him and had invaded his right to privacy. He wishes to argue that the Government prescribed warning, 'smoking Causes Throat Cancer' was manifestly false. In support of an immediate stay upon the 85% pictorial warning, he had averred that "it will cause serious disturbance and mental trauma" to him and that he will suffer "irreparable injury" otherwise. Further, he had also asked for quashing the 40% pictorial warning as well.
- A stay was granted by the Karnataka High Court in a similar petition. After a few developments, the matter reached the Hon'ble Supreme Court. Supreme Court wished to transfer all the cases from different High Courts to one High Court. The aforementioned cases gave Karnataka High Court more cases than other High Courts. The Supreme Court accordingly, transferred all cases from different High Courts to the Karnataka High Court on the ground that Karnataka High Court had more cases than other High Courts. [Order dated 4-May-2016 in Karnataka Beedi Industry Association v. Union of India, SLP (Civil) No. 10119-10121 of 2016. The PIL in the Rajasthan High Court was also transferred to the Karnataka High Court so as to be decided by a Bench of the Karnataka High Court.
- Tobacco packs in India now mandatorily carry pictorial warnings on two largest sides of the pack to the extent of 85% of each side - a picture of a cancerous organ ravaged by tobacco. After Supreme Court transferred the tobacco companies' petitions at different High Courts attacking the legality and reasonableness of this regulation to the Karnataka High court, a special Bench of the Karnataka High court began hearing it and is about to conclude the hearing. In the 75 hours devoted so far to hear the tobacco industry's challenge to the health warnings, this Bench has refused to hear argument about the harmful effect of tobacco as it says that such information is 'irrelevant', 'unnecessary' or would be a wastage of the Court's time'.
Based on the facts of this letter, one asks: what exquisite stench is Karnataka High Court emitting, that attracts tobacco manufacturers and lobbyists from across the country like vultures?
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