By Lal Gunatunga
A recent visit to Kataragama and the deep south laid bare the deficiency of our system of governance, equivalence and the severe case of pretence that engulfs our society. These culpabilities come with great costs: economic and human costs and a breakdown of law and order, which almost seem irreversible, given the extent of its entrenchment in our people.
At first glance, the problem appears insignificant – as it unfolded around a cigarette. At the venerated township, the chauffer alighted to purchase a cigarette – and after a couple of unsuccessful stops – he returned with a stack of beedi. Upon enquiry, the good man retorts that as this was a place of religious worship, cigarettes and alcohol are not available for sale.
That seems all good and well, except that the man could purchase beedi – which in effect also constitutes a rolled-up tobacco product and smoked in a similar manner to a cigarette. Upon further investigation, it emerged that cigarettes were not available/permitted for sale but there was no such ban on beedi and they were abundantly available at Rs.5 a stick with ‘Rajarata’ and ‘Thora’ seemingly the popular brands.
A large ‘Cigarette Netha’ (No Cigarettes) sign engulfed the entrance of some shops, which however brazenly sold beedis to its customers. Similarly, it was also revealed that whilst no registered wine shops are available in the area, residents and devotees were provided ample access to illicit products with related consumer behaviour apparent on the streets.
As we proceeded on our journey back towards Colombo, ‘the problem’ then took a bizarre twist. Not so far away from the tourist belt of the sunny south close to Matara, the grocers did not retail cigarettes as they claimed that public health inspectors (PHIs) had prohibited them from doing so.
Ironically, beedis were once again available for sale in these same shops, as shopkeepers themselves expressed ridicule at this two-faced action by officials, adding that they (officials) were only harming themselves as beedi brought little or no revenue to state coffers.
These issues are the outcomes of inept government policy, miscommunication, the lack of political will and state machinery to instil law and order. The fallout, or costs, to the nation are substantial and present long-term impacts, which could prove difficult to overcome, as they may have already become entrenched in people’s cultures.
In the first place, to prohibit and curtail the sale of legal alcohol and tobacco products close to a place of religious worship is laughable when illicit products are available there freely and are consumed in broad daylight. The complete disregard of the law – as it were – by residents, devotees and guardians of the holy site amply demonstrate the pointlessness of such regulation and the inability of enforcement authorities to implement the law in a reasonable and fair manner.
Also, does the law provide for PHIs to arbitrarily ban the sale of cigarettes or any legally registered product anywhere in Sri Lanka? I had the opportunity to pose this question to the relevant authority at the Health Ministry, who replied that there is no such direction given and that it is an unlawful act and shopkeepers must report such incidents.
But, then what is driving these PHIs to do so? Could it be a lack of communication or the force and influence of unseen hands? Some shopkeepers alleged that these measures were forced on them by local officials and this disrupts their regular mode of business. They questioned why officials were prohibiting the sale of a registered product and turned a blind eye on a more harmful sub-standard product and that too in the tourism belt along the southern coastline.
It is common knowledge that close to 90 percent of the value of a cigarette constitutes of tax. Accordingly, a harried simple local estimate done based on the ground facts suggested – which is subject to correction based on official figures – that the government is losing Rs.7.2 million in revenue a month from the locality.
As per the feedback provided by shopkeepers, an average 10 to 15 bundles of beedi are sold a day and even if these were subject to tax – which hardly seems the case – it does not deliver the goods in terms of revenue to the state. Also, at just Rs.100 a bundle, beedi does become an attractive option to some consumers.
Rather than shoot itself in the foot, it is time for the government to consider realistic measures and methods of implementation to ensure and safeguard its revenue and the welfare of its people and their health. As a veteran of the plantation sector and having travelled and met with my fellow citizens across the length and breadth of Sri Lanka, the realization dawns that you cannot disengage our country men and women from alcohol and tobacco products.
Women are a significant part of this value chain as they are brewers, producers, consumers and marketers of these products that they consider their livelihood. What governments must do is to minimize harm through effective regulation and education. Attempts at prohibition only serve to grow the incidence of illicit and glorify its presence. This is evident all over the island; it is simply a matter of accepting the truth rather than give voice to pointless rhetoric that we can be a nation free of alcohol and tobacco.
Similar incidents plague numerous Sri Lankan sectors. The dairy industry, tea and rubber trade and paddy amongst others present a plethora of administrative, political and policy issues that require urgent attention. However, I feel that we need to get our alcohol and tobacco policy right as the issues that permeate from the lack of a pragmatic policy is far critical with dangerous ramifications to all aspects of society.
We must put an end to breeding illicit liquor and tobacco barons that have expanded at perilous levels islandwide. It is much too late for us some argue but I believe there is still hope if effective policy is supported with an equally effective programme of action – that are practical and not draconian in nature.
(Lionel Gunatunga is a retired superintendent of government and private plantation organisations and counts over 40 years of experience in the Central and Southern Provinces, engaged in plantation administration and operations. He can be reached at email@example.com)