Heed John's plea | Daily News

Heed John's plea

There have been mixed reactions to Finance Minister Mangala Samaraweera's budget announcement of a price reduction in beer, while effecting ‘strength’ based increase in the price of hard liquor. Minister John Seneviratne has expressed his misgivings. Speaking in parliament, during the budget debate, he said, the price of ‘Gal’ arrack, which he claimed, was the popular brand among the working class, who go for it in a big way, after their hard grind, at the end of the day, should be brought down. Minister Seneviratne, being in charge of the subject of Labour, naturally, would be sympathetic towards the working class. On the other hand, Joint Opposition Member of Parliament, Kanaka Herath, has praised the minister for slashing the price of beer, which, he hoped, would lead to the kassippu drinker taking to this soft brew.

Many imbibers would have hoped minister Samaraweera, to have left liquor prices untouched, when he presented the budget, due, mainly, to the sentiments he had expressed earlier, denouncing the hypocratic liquor policy that is being adopted in this country, and, also, speaking in favour of opening liquor outlets on Poya days, on the basis that the largest volume of liquor was sold on this particular day, holy to the Buddhists, on the sly.

Commendable, though, the minister's move to encourage the habitual imbiber of hard liquor to take to beer, it is doubtful if things will work out in that direction. This is mainly because, once addicted to hard liquor, it is next to impossible to settle for less. It is, mainly, a psychological thing, and, no deterrent, in the form of price hikes (of hard liquor), is going to change things. That is why we tend to agree with the suggestion of minister Seneviratne that his colleague has a change of heart and bring down the price of ‘Gal,’ or, let it remain at the current price. As minister Seneviratne argued, the price of a bottle of this brand of arrack, which was once only Rs. 750, has now soared to over Rs. 1,500. The labourer, who earns a pittance, can ill afford this, but is helpless, and would give into the urge, whatever the price, leaving little to survive on, for self and family. This could lead to other social problems, far worse than if hard liquor prices were kept untouched, if not slashed.

Minister Seneviratne was circumspect when he pleaded for the reduction of the price of ‘Gal'. He said, bringing down the price of ‘Gal’ arrack would help ease the economic burden of the common man. “If you need, you can increase the price of brandy. That would not affect the common man,” Seneviratne said.

He said, he was in no way promoting liquor consumption, but only wanted to put things in perspective. All governments, he said, attempted to find ways to tackle liquor addiction, but failed in that endeavour. “Those who drink will continue to drink. We brought the mathata titha programme, during the last regime, to discourage drinking. But that programme was not successful,” the minister went onto elaborate.

He went on explain, that, the daily wage earner, the estate workers, the coolies, the natamis, those who toil in mines and gem pits, without seeing daylight, and, others engaged in backbreaking jobs, are all eagerly looking forward to the moment, at the end of day, when they could wrap themselves round the bottle and drink away their cares and drown their sorrows.

True, drinking in the evenings has become a daily routine for these types. No amount of persuasion, counselling, and, above all, the price stick, is going to change this way of life. Neither will they go for a soft liquor, just because it is being made cheaper. It will in no way have an effect on their senses that demands a feeling of oblivion, or, an escape, so to speak.

Minister Samaraweera, it is hoped, would reconsider his decision and heed the pleas of his ministerial colleague. There is going to be a further increase in the prices of hard liquor, from April next year, with the addition of the Nation Building Tax .The Minister, at least, should refrain from implementing this, because, things can only get worse, where the wage earner in concerned. Even Prof G. L. Peiris tried to encourage more and more hard liquor drinkers to take to beer, by similarly reducing the price. He argued that the excise revenue would not be affected due to the increase in the numbers consuming beer. However, a recent survey showed that hard liquor consumption had undergone a steep rise, while beer sales remained the same.

To be fair by Minister Samaraweera, his stated intention in effecting the beer price reduction was to convert the kassippu drinker to take to the soft brew and spare him the dangerous consequences. This was based on the scenario in western countries, where, only a very small percentage drink hard liquor, with the vast majority consuming soft liquor, such as beer and wine. It is moot, though, if the experiment will work in this country. 


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