SEVENTY-FIVE per cent of cigarette sales in India are currently going into the coffers of the multi-diversified mega-corporation ITC. And yet, ITC is not considered a monopolist in a market where other firms in the organised sector, and several in the non-organised sector, fight tooth and nail for a share of the 50 billion rupees (about HK$12.5 billion) that Indians annually spend oncigarettes. Commanding a 58 per cent share of the market in India, ITC has had a stranglehold on the smoker, especially when the 16.1 per cent share of its sister firm, VST Industries, is added to its already dominant portion. Even though the actual number of cigarettes consumed in India has declined over the years, from 96.08 million in 1984 to 80.61 million in 1992, the cost per stick has gone steadily up, bringing in higher market realisation. Until now, the lukewarm efforts of ITC's three national-level competitors - Godfrey Phillips India (GPI), GTC Industries and NTC - have not troubled the Calcutta-based multinational, which also has a chain of hotels all over India. There can be no doubt that ITC, with its savvy marketing techniques and brand positioning, has been squeezing the life out of most of its competitors. Just five years ago, the firm had more than half the market share (50.5 per cent), while VST had 16.2 per cent. VST has remained at virtually the same level since 1988, but ITC has added further tone to its muscles. The only other company that has managed to improve its share is GPI, which had 14.7 per cent in 1988, and now has 17.3 per cent. The others have been crushed by these two. GTC's share has shrunk steadily from 14.9 per cent 1988 to just 8 per cent in 1992. NTC has suffered even more, its 3.1 per cent share in 1988 being whittled down to a beggarly 0.2 per cent - mainly the result of a prolonged plant shutdown, due to labour trouble. And it is going to be an uphill task for the company to re-attract smokers to its Regent and Number 10 brands. Yet all that could well change shortly. With Finance Minister Dr Manmohan Singh's liberalisation measures affecting virtually every industry in India, ITC may see its profits going up in smoke if it does not do something immediately to short-circuit the imminent entry of several multinational giants. In April this year, the Indian Government formally allowed R. J. Reynolds, worldwide manufacturers of Camel, More, Salem and Winston, to join hands with Modipon. Phillip Morris, which already has an equity stake in Godfrey Phillips, may well decide to buy the controlling interest, and then launch some of its international brands, like Marlboro, Players Merit and Virginia Slims. There is also a possibility that Japan Tobacco, which manufactures Mild Seven, will step into India on its own. All these developments can not have pleased ITC. But it has not let the grass grow under its feet, as can be seen from the massive and expensive brand refurbishment strategy it has embarked upon. Under the shrewd tutelage of chairman Kishen Lal Chugh, the company is re-launching every one of its major brands. The same soul searching is going on at VST. ''Our brands are our most valuable asset,'' said Mr Chugh. ''We are therefore taking steps to increase our brand equity. We are doing it because we see more competition ahead, with India opening up more than ever. ''We are doing it to position our products in such a fashion that we are globally competitive. We must be ready to compete in India with global players, and compete globally with the multinationals.''