ISSN: 1391 - 0531
Sunday October 28, 2007
Vol. 42 - No 22

The light side and dark side of kasippu trade

Tales from the backwoods By Haris Tumpane

Something that has existed over, at least, the past half century in Sri Lanka is the problem of “kasippu,” which has become steadily worse throughout rural and urban areas of the country until it has now become a part of local culture, the illicit brew being served at “formal” occasions such as weddings and funerals.

Recently, one of the government’s regulatory agencies, the Excise Department, I believe, stated that more than 60 per cent of the alcohol consumed in the country was of the illicit variety. On the other side of this coin is the statement by those seeking to curry favour with the President that, ever since his “Mathata Thitha” project was publicised, there has been a significant reduction in alcohol use and abuse. I will let international statistics speak with regard to this kind of “project” rather than engage in useless arguments.

Raid on a kasippu den. (File photo)

One hardly needs to specify the effects of the use and abuse of the various “brews” on individuals and communities but a few vignettes might serve to bring home what a significant problem this is to individuals, families, the community and society at large.

The proverbial wisdom is that the kasippu trade, as did bootleg liquor in the days of prohibition, does not prosper without the connivance of elements within the law enforcement agencies. As is typical of any illicit business, it seems that raids, no matter how well organized, are not complete surprises to those targeted and the big fish seem to get away every time.The local network is an interesting one. The primary supplier who, I am informed, runs several buses and has other accoutrements of formal business success, lives in a village at the bottom of the hill. The “concentrate” that he starts out with is, I am told, brought in from the West Coast. After primary dilution, this is carried by the person who acts as the retail sales agent, about two kilometres, up a very steep footpath to the distribution point.

The reason that the product is conveyed in this manner is because of the difficulty of interception in an area where people are really averse to leaving the beaten track due to the risk of hitting a trip-wire and getting shot by a trap gun. Both the police and the Excise people are conscious of this risk and will not venture off motorable roads if they can help it.

Also, Mr. Retail Merchant is equipped with a cellular phone and can be tipped off if the law enforcement agencies are likely to get anywhere close to him. And local gossip has it that a part of the network are informants within the law enforcement agencies who, whenever their colleagues are in the process of organizing a raid, seem only too ready to give the kasippu boys a “heads up” so that they can take appropriate evasive action.Sometimes, the “tip off” can also have hilarious consequences. On one occasion the writer phoned home when, during the course of his “constitutional” walk down the road, he encountered some people on motorbikes going in the opposite direction. He assumed these might have been police or Excise men in mufti and informed the people at his home of his suspicions, using his cell phone.

One of those privy to this message was a worker who was a regular patron of the kasippu retailer. This worthy patron, out of a sense of misplaced loyalty to his supplier, left his workplace and made a beeline up a short cut to where the kasippu guy was “packeting” his product for sale. In fact, several potential customers were on hand, impatiently awaiting the final step prior to making their purchases.

When the news of an impending raid was conveyed by the loyal (and breathless) informant, pandemonium ensued. The kasippu retailer passed out the packages of product to his potential customers, asking them to dispose of these wherever they could ……… but fast! The packages did leave the premises very swiftly but were not disposed of in the manner that our mudalali friend envisaged. Instead, the packages were carefully stashed away by the customers for future use.

Subsequently, a neighbour of the writer, many of whose workers were among the clientele at that time, complained very bitterly that he had no work-force for several days subsequent to this event because those entrusted with disposing of the “packets” of kasippu had enough supply safely hidden in the bushes to stay “tanked” for several days!

An additional ironic twist to this story was that the guys coming up the hill on motorbikes were in search of a drink of kasippu themselves and not a part of the law enforcement fraternity!

While there is a humorous side to this illicit business, most of what one observes is grim, to say the least. There are men in their early twenties who have the “shakes” and cannot wield a tool or implement without a “shot” to settle their nerves, first thing in the morning. There are also several young men (and women) who have serious stomach disorders that are a direct result of imbibing the various “brews.”

Consumption of the illicit brew is not confined to the males, either. Many women also drink this rot-gut and, in one case, a couple that works for the writer, get drunk virtually every evening and then proceed to beat each other up. Recently, the woman in this household had got much the worse of the exchanges and had taken refuge, overnight, with her daughter who lives on an adjacent estate. When she turned up for work the next day, the husband, incensed by what he claimed was her insulting behaviour in leaving his hearth and home, turned up with a knife with the intent of doing her in. Fortunately, some of the other workers intervened and chased him away.

Alcoholism is so widespread that it is deserving of a sociological analysis. It also appears to be restricted to the informal “colony” which has developed after the disruption created by the infamous Land Reforms and is nowhere as much of a problem in the older, established villages.

The kasippu trade and the general lawlessness that prevails appear to be directly related to the rootlessness and disorganization of life and the lack of a sense of community that prevails in these “colonies”. In fact, the residents of the older villages in this region look down on these “colonists” treating them accordingly.

There does not appear to be any attempt to deal with this problem, the only governmental response being sending the police and Excise Department on raids from time to time. Basically, a two-pronged attack needs to be launched – getting at the big fish in the business and seeking to deal with the real problems that create a culture that leads to alcoholism. Even that would amount to little more than a beginning in a long and uphill battle, but a start has to be made if there is going to be any change in the totally unacceptable status quo. Falling back on the “Mathata Thitha” sloganeering and the like is little but an exercise in ego-boosting sycophancy and a colossal waste of time and resources.

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