There was a commotion down the road. “Aney mage nona …,” bawled old man Pedris, the cart-puller, in a drunken stupor……“…mata gedarayanna ona, mage bus gastuwa deela yanna ko.” It was 10 in the morning and the man was drunk, lustily singing the old popular hit ‘Kussi Amma Sera’. Brushing against roadside bushes and trampling [...]

Business Times

SL’s Excise chief can’t buy liquor


There was a commotion down the road. “Aney mage nona …,” bawled old man Pedris, the cart-puller, in a drunken stupor……“…mata gedarayanna ona, mage bus gastuwa deela yanna ko.”

It was 10 in the morning and the man was drunk, lustily singing the old popular hit ‘Kussi Amma Sera’. Brushing against roadside bushes and trampling twigs with a crackling noise, Pedris would occasionally stop and stare and, in a threatening stance, wag a finger at an imaginary person.

Watching from the garden while sweeping, our very own Kussi Amma Sera (KAS) muttered under her breath, “Balanna mey miniha….….gedara gihilla dan randuwenawa.”

Then shouting across the road to Seetha (the neighbour’s domestic aide and KAS’s comrade-in-arms), she jokingly says: “Gehanu lamaita arrakku kaalak ganna puluwan nang thabarumeng, mey wage minissun-ta wedak denna puluwang….”

Overhearing the conversation, I was a bit puzzled by the last remark but then remembered a story sometime back in the Sunday Times about women being barred from purchasing any form of alcohol.

Under the archaic Excise Ordinance established in the early 1950s, the law prohibits the sale of any kind of liquor to a woman at a retail liquor store or tavern. This provision, it appears, is applied in fits and starts – sometimes no one questions a woman buying liquor in a retail store, sometimes they do. Some retailers are also unaware that such a law exists.

Ironically, such archaic provisions prevail at a time when the regulations governing the licensing and sale of alcoholic beverages are supervised by a woman. In September this year, the Government appointed senior administrator Helen Meegasmulla as the new Excise Commissioner-General, the first woman to assume this position.

So the top administrator in charge of licensing and other rules pertaining to the sale of alcohol technically cannot legally purchase this product, while all her male colleagues in the department can.

Some months back, State Minister of Finance Eran Wickramaratne was quoted in newspapers as saying that he was shocked to learn during a meeting at the Excise Department that women cannot legally purchase arrack in Sri Lanka — an even more compelling reason why an immediate amendment to the law is required.

These thoughts came to my mind during the Thursday morning commotion on our lane on top of the public reaction to Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera’s proposal to reduce beer taxes and encourage more beer consumption than hard liquor. The proposal triggered furious criticism from medical doctors, their accredited bodies and associations and the Buddhist clergy – all saying the Government should not be promoting beer or any alcohol for that matter.

There is another reason for alluding to the beer-arrack discourse. The other day, eminent sociologist Prof. Siri Hettige was complaining that it was “ridiculous” that “everybody is talking about motor cars or alcohol (in the budget)”.

“This is sheer lunacy,” he exclaimed, joining me during a walk at the ‘Weli Park’ at Nugegoda. “The budget should have focused on efficient public transportation, education and why hasn’t there been increased spending on R&D?” he said, adding: “We are still spending heavily on defence (when there is no war) instead of channelling those resources to peace and reconciliation.”

The good professor has a point…..….in terms of research and development spending. The country’s R&D spending is minimal compared to allocations for other sectors. While R&D gets a wee bit more in every budget, the spending is nowhere near that of what other countries allocate to this sector.

Sri Lanka has some great research institutions like the Tea Research Institute (TRI), the Rubber Research Institute (RRI) or the Rice Research and Development Institute (RRDI) and a few other state-run bodies but these have not received the financial support they need and are nowhere in the picture when it comes to ground-breaking research. The Industrial Technology Institute of Sri Lanka, formerly the Ceylon Institute of Scientific and Industrial Research (CISIR), has to some extent developed into a fine industrial research agency with commercial support, while the Sri Lanka Institute of Nano Technology or SLINTEC is carving out its niche in advancing the use of nano technology, again with valuable commercial funding, and becoming a world-beater.

Unfortunately, these institutions – particularly the TRI, the RRI or RRDI — lack sufficient financial support to develop answers to modern-day needs. While R&D is considered a key element in the progress of a nation, in Sri Lanka there is nary a mention in the media about these research institutes because they are considered not important enough. The Business Times recently carried a series of articles highlighting the plight of the RRI and related state rubber agencies. In one, Dr. L.M.K. Tillekeratne, former RRI Director, spoke of the role played by RRI scientists to convert rubber plantations in Myanmar and Cambodia to overtake total rubber production in Sri Lanka in less than a decade, while in Sri Lanka the RRI gets slipshod treatment. The same treatment applies to the TRI, particularly at a time when plantations are “getting the works” – struggling to survive due to a decades-old model governed by wages, poor yields and the ban on weedicides. Agriculture expert, Prof. C.S. Weeraratne in a newspaper article on Friday opposed the import of cheap quality tea – a demand by some tea exporters – saying such a move will kill an industry that was built on producing the best quality tea in the world. The folly of importing cheaper quality teas for re-export as a blended product has also been vigorously opposed by veteran producer Merrill J. Fernando, whose Dilmah tea sells as a pure Sri Lankan origin tea in 100 countries and is Sri Lanka’s only known brand in the world. Challenged to a public duel (read: public debate) by the tea-import lobby on the advantages or disadvantages of importing tea, Merrill (always relishing a challenge even at the age of 80+ years), is prepared. “I am ready for a public debate. Let them come,” he says.

Sri Lanka’s state-funded research community is comparable to the best in the world but lacks financial clout and stature to cross new borders in the research arena. This is not the case in terms of the plethora of market research and privately-led agencies that are more focused on consumer buying trends and patterns of spending or privately-funded research agencies that rely on non-state funds. And not forgetting new agencies like Verite Research which is, in fact, drawing attention even from state agencies, which unfortunately choose to ignore their own research units.

If not this time, the authorities should – at least in the next budget — seriously consider paying more attention and money on R&D. The nation’s future – blessed with an abundance of nature and natural resources that most countries don’t have — lies in finding answers to the country’s food mix, nutritional content vis-à-vis costly farming and production methods and technological advances in industry and commerce which can only come from investing adequately on research and development.

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