What’s Your Poison?
Alcohol Consumption + Content A Major Problem Among Sri Lankan Tea Workers
Alcoholism is a serious issue in Sri Lanka’s hill country, as is artificial alcohol, that is more like drinking poison than palm wine.
As the sun sets they gather in their favourite drinking holes. And even if they cannot afford it, they don’t hesitate to pay for their alcohol – future earnings are promised, the jewellery of a wife or daughter is traded, and identity cards are handed over to guarantee a debt. All for an alcoholic drink.
“They” are workers on Sri Lanka’s tea plantations. They labour all day to bring refreshing cups of tea to those in other locations, then want to refresh themselves with a completely different substance.
Spending time in the hill country one soon notices how problematic this method of relaxation can be. Even in the morning in the hill country city of Nuwara Eliya, you see estate workers hanging around bars. Ask them what they are doing here so early and one of them replies: “Waiting for the toddy [alcohol] delivery”.
After working all morning, we feel pain. So we drink toddy. It gives us strength.
According to the national Department of Excise, which is responsible for taxing substances like alcohol and tobacco, around 150,000 litres of alcohol – this includes beer, the spirit known as arak and toddy, a lightly alcoholic drink made from fermented coconut palm sap – is consumed in the hill country every year.
Considering that just over half – 56 percent – of those living in these areas are plantation workers and that surveys suggest that around two-thirds of estate workers over 18 drink alcohol regularly, one can assume that estate workers drink more regularly than the rest of the country. The number who drink regularly is around 40 percent for the rest of Sri Lanka.
One of the most popular drinks in the hill country is toddy. A major reason for its popularity is the price – it’s cheaper than other liquors. A bottle of toddy costs around LKR100 (EUR0.60). Any other liquor will cost them between LKR250 and LKR300.
There are plenty of bars in the towns where estate workers congregate. And lorry driver, G. Suresh Kumar, who worked delivering stock to a local bar for two years, says that some of the bars open a lot earlier than standard licensing would suggest.
“Some of the bars in the estate areas open in the early morning,” he says. “Some even open at 6am. A bar usually sells about 400 bottles in a day and takes one or two lorry loads a week; we can get 1,500 bottles of toddy into a lorry.”
“Some people drink as though this was their last meal,” Kumar continues. “They mortgage gold jewellery, identity cards, bank passbooks and phones in order to drink. When I left the job, the bar was still holding about 15 identity cards. This epidemic is destroying our community.”
A local tea plantation worker, S. Shiva, explained why he drinks daily: “We earn so little from working on the estates,” he told The Catamaran. “After working all morning on the estate, we feel a lot of physical pain by the afternoon. We don’t earn enough to buy arak. So we drink toddy. It gives us strength.”
And there’s another problem with toddy. According to official statistics there are 84,291 coconut palms available for making the drink. But even if this number of trees was doubled, they would not be able to satisfy the demand in the town of Nuwara Eliya alone. So one can safely assume that a lot of the toddy being sold today is, in fact, not genuine. That is, it has not come from palm trees.
The majority of toddy entering Nuwara Eliya comes by lorry from the areas of Chilaw and Nattandiya where, locals say, the toddy business is run by wealthy businessmen. However, the amount of toddy they need to produce can clearly not be satisfied by natural toddy. Police raids in the area have shown that artificial toddy is being made with ingredients like urea, ammonia, yeast and pain killer tablets. Rumour has it that medicines from India are now being used in toddy production and that the businessmen involved have managed to circumvent the law due to their standing in society, and quite possibly, through bribes and corruption. Trade in alcohol in this area has reached mafia-style proportions.
It is clear that whether the toddy is artificial or real, the amount that is consumed by estate workers in Sri Lanka is a tragedy waiting to happen. As one local put it: “When these people die, they won’t need to be embalmed. They are embalming themselves by drinking every day”.