A four-hour drive from the state capital of Chandigarh, Shankarpura has only about 1000 inhabitants. But none of them smoke, according to the former head (sarpanch) of the village Satyawan Varma.
“Shankarpura is known for being anti-tobacco. Nobody here smokes or chews tobacco. Things are different even when you walk a bit further and go over to our neighbouring village Mugalpura. But not in Shankarpura. Nobody here encourages smoking,” Varma says.
The phenomenon is an anomaly in a country where nearly 80,000 cases of oral cancer were diagnosed in 2008, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO).
What keeps people from lighting up their beedis and cigarettes is a local legend from the pre-independence era. “A few villagers who were active in the freedom struggle had sought shelter from British troops in tobacco fields around the village. They managed to escape unhurt in the firing and promised that they would never burn tobacco since it had saved their lives,” Varma explains.
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The promise made by the freedom fighters of Shankarpura is still being kept alive by the following generations. Tobacco fields surrounding the village were left untended after the incident and even today tobacco products aren’t sold in any of the village shops.
“When we have visitors who are smokers, we advise them to bring their own tobacco because you can’t buy any in Shankarpura. They can smoke if they want but they can’t access it here,” Varma says.
This lack of access to tobacco products is astonishing in a country where every tiny street shop sells tobacco products, usually without seeking any proof of age.
But things may be changing – a few youngsters from Shankarpura started smoking a few years ago, deviating from tradition. Subsequently, when things went wrong in their personal or professional lives, their smoking habit was blamed for the mishaps. A superstitious belief that smoking gives rise to bad karma has since been dominant among villagers.
“There is fear among the villagers that smoking is the reason for things going wrong in their life. Most who take up the habit are forced into quitting because of this fear,” says Varma.
The elders of Shankarpura see it as their moral duty to coerce youngsters out of their smoking habits. “When I see youngsters on the street smoking, which happens rarely here in Shankarpura, I walk up to them and ask them to give up,” says Varma.
Though it is the legend and superstition that Varma credits for Shankarpura’s non-smoking environ, he says people are aware of the ill-effects of tobacco consumption: “Football is a really popular sport here in Shankarpura. And everybody who plays football knows how harmful smoking is for their health. So it’s not as if they aren’t aware.”