Oops! Do-gooder Helen’s anti-tobacco credentials go up in smoke with UN business award to ITC

About a month back, the Times of India was among several media in that country trumpeting news that a diversified Indian business firm, ITC Ltd, had received the ‘2012 World Business and Development Award’ at the Rio+20 United Nations Summit in Brazil.

The award had been given for the transformational rural initiatives in social and farm forestry programmes in India undertaken by the company, the proud company said in a statement.

The award was instituted by various international agencies, including the United Nations Development Programme, the International Chamber of Commerce and the International Business Leaders Forum (IBLF).

Some questions.

Who is head of the UN Development Programme?

Yep. Our Helen Clark, who took refuge there after being flung out of office at the 2008 election.

And what do we remember Helen Clark for?

That’s right – for turning the country into a Granny State, especially when it came to things like tobacco (bad) and environmentalism (good).

Now, what are these World Business and Development Awards all about?

According to the International Chamber of Commerce website (here) –

The World Business and Development Awards are the first global business awards to recognize the crucial role of the private sector in implementing the millennium goals — eight internationally agreed targets to reduce poverty and environmental degradation and improve education, health conditions and gender equality by 2015.

Good stuff.

Now what about this year’s big winner, the ITC.

How did the company get those initials?

Let’s consult a highly critical column by Pranay Lal for the answer to that one –

Late last month, on the sidelines of the Rio+20 conference, India’s largest cigarette maker, ITC (formerly Indian Tobacco Company) received the World Business Council for Sustainable Development’s highest prize for improving the environment and removing poverty. In tow were the UNDP’s administrator and former New Zealand prime minister, Helen Clark, and the top executive of the UN Global Compact. The award is possibly the biggest travesty of justice even by the UN and the World Bank’s weak ethical standards.

Ooh. How come?

Our outraged columnist points out that –

ITC is primarily a cigarette maker and tobacco trader, even though it would like to claim that it is a diversified company selling soap, biscuits and hospitality.

It started exactly 100 years ago in Bihar and migrated to Andhra Pradesh to grow tobacco and make cigarettes.

Growing tobacco and making cigarettes is toxic to the environment. It needs to clear forests and fields to grow tobacco, requires chemicals to ensure that the tobacco plant is free of pathogens, and trees to be hacked to cure the tobacco (one kilogram of tobacco needs roughly eight kilos of dry fuel wood), add more than 4000 undisclosed chemicals to make the cigarette addictive, and top this with glossy packaging of paper, cardboard and plastic, which we see littered on the streets and choking waterways. In addition, ITC’s factories have over-extracted water and polluted rivers.

In April 2011, for example, desperate farmers of Bhadrachalam and Irivendi villages had to go to court when the district collector could not stop ITC’s factory from over- extracting water from a drying Godavari. In a nutshell, this is the lifecycle of a cigarette.

Imagine cutting down dry forests of central India to fuel an addiction! Organisations that conduct ITC’s environmental diligence do not use the full historical environmental cost of their business. They use an annual energy and input-output analysis and this makes them look good. Even this, however, is not the full impact of ITC’s business.

But let’s not forget that –

Smoking kills more than one million adults prematurely in India.

ITC’s cigarettes have been a major contributor, both directly for its smokers and those exposed to its smoke, and also to the youth, many of whom who are poor and aspire to smoke its cigarettes.

Smoking also is a leading cause of poverty. One study using government data suggests that direct expenditure on tobacco by households can potentially impoverish nearly 15 million Indians annually.

Another study has found that treating just four major tobacco-related diseases account for 4.7% of India’s national healthcare expenditure. This will grow in the future as more youth will take to smoking cigarettes.

Wouldn’t question time in Parliament today be fun if Helen popped back to be interrogated about her organisation’s role in this award.

Ah, but we can relish in her squirming in an item published by the NZ Herald (here) today –

Former New Zealand Prime Minister Helen Clark says it was a “serious oversight” a cigarette company was able to win a World Business Development Award, which are supported by the UN agency she heads.

Serious oversight?

That’s one way of putting it, a bit like giving Syria’s autocratic leader a Nobel Peace Prize.

In a statement, Ms Clark also said she was shocked to learn ITC had been given an award.

“I have worked tirelessly throughout my career to achieve a smoke free society in New Zealand, and was thus, shocked to learn that a World Business Development Award, supported by UNDP, was given to a company which derives a substantial proportion of its profits from tobacco,” she said.

“Unfortunately the criteria for the World Business Development Awards did not exclude projects implemented by companies from certain sectors like tobacco.

“This has clearly been a serious oversight.

“UNDP is reviewing its rules and regulations to ensure that an incident like this never happens again. UNDP will not participate in these awards in the future unless companies like this are excluded.”

If she thought real hard about it, of course, she could perhaps come up with a justification for giving an award to ITC.

Notwithstanding the observations of the columnist who has damned the award as a travesty, it should be noted that by killing off Indians in their millions, it is reducing demands for food and other resources.

In that perverse way it is indeed contributing to the war on poverty.

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