While the government had banned the sale of gutka just months before the coronavirus pandemic gripped Karachi, the cessation could only last a few weeks.
With too much time to spare during the resulting lockdowns, the public, highly dependent on the narcotic, had soon found ways to not only DIY their own chewing tobacco at home but also to peddle it in the back-alleys.
Before the crackdown in November 2019, most of the gutka circulated in the province used to be manufactured in the urban metropolis of Karachi and pushed to other parts of the province, making the port city the gutka-capital of Sindh.
So when the government curbed the sale, its ripples were most severely felt in far-flung villages and island settlements, where users were entirely reliant on shipments from Karachi.
In the port city, however, the ban only had a short-lived impact on gutka consumption.
“Youngsters addicted to the tobacco chew soon started mixing small areca nut, processed tobacco and slaked lime to make homemade gutka and mawa. They would then go around the city on motorcycles and bootleg it to whoever was willing to buy at black-market rates,” told Zeeshan Bengali, who works at a local water plant.
This too couldn’t work for too long, and consumers were quick to realise that the easy recipe did not justify the extortionate black-market rates which the bootleggers were charging. “Now most users have started making their own chewing tobacco at home,” said a betel nut seller on conditions of anonymity.
According to the seller, in most parts of the city, the habit of eating gutka has been replaced by mawa, while gutka is mostly manufactured and used in Lyari, Malir, Baldia Town and other areas. “Mawa sells for Rs100 to Rs120 per packet, and has to be prepared for a stipulated amount of time. The variety that is prepared for a whole day can sell for over Rs200 a packet,” the betel seller revealed.
However, regardless of the form, any kind of chewing tobacco, be it gutka or mawa, can be severely damaging to health, exponentially increase the possibility of developing oral cancer. Users complain that when not consumed, they start to undergo withdrawal effects like lethargy, dizziness and brain fog.
According to Pakistan Medical Association (PMA) General Secretary Prof Dr Qaiser Sajjad, the consumption of tobacco-based chew has resulted in an alarming increase in the number of oral cancer patients among the metropolis’ population.
“Although, traditionally it would be men who’d burn their income on procuring and consuming gutka and mawa, now even women in the port city have increasingly started consuming the narcotic,” informed Social activist Tarannum Naz.
Speaking in this regard, Sindh Chief Minister’s Special Assistant Waqar Mehdi said that his government has done whatever it could to ban the sale of gutka and mawa, but the people too will have to put in their own effort to quit the habit of consuming tobacco-based chews.
“The police have been instructed to reprimand anyone seen selling, consuming, carrying or peddling gutka or mawa. Strict action will be taken against these people, so the public is requested to be wise and make better decisions for themselves,” he told The Express Tribune.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 17th, 2021.
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