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HEALTH-SRI LANKA: Model Cure for Alcoholism on Tea Plantations

Feizal Samath

HAPUGASTENNE, Sri Lanka, Feb 17 2000 (IPS) - Children on this Sri Lankan tea estate have vividly captured alcohol abuse in paint and prose — drunk father hitting mother, shouting at the kids or breaking the pots and pans and children not being able to study.

Until four years ago alcoholism was rampant on this plantation nestling in the Ratnapura Hills, 100 km south of Colombo. It had not only ruined workers’ families but also affected the output of the high-quality tea growing estate.

“It had become a cancer that was slowly spreading,” recalls Devon Warusavitarne, the superintendent. Then a local non- governmental organisation came to his rescue with a unique alcohol-consumption reduction programme.

Alcoholism has considerably reduced, and productivity and output on the estate has improved. Workers who stayed away because they were too drunk, have come back to work.

The small estate hospital which once admitted between 60 and 70 women roughed up by their drunk husbands every month, reports much fewer incidents.

“The programme was not aimed at people giving up alcohol — though many say they don’t drink anymore — but to reduce abuse and consumption,” explains Warusavitarne, whose success is now being widely replicated in other tea estates in Sri Lanka.

To spread its message, the NGO, Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC), put up an exhibition of paintings and write-ups by children between five and 12 years in the local Sports Club to show what alcoholism does to families and communities.

“The children were told to reflect on the alcohol demand- reduction programme and illustrate the problems at home associated with drinking,” said Teresa Jayasuriya, a pre-school teacher who has worked on the estate for 17 years.

Alcohol abuse is a common problem among both men and women workers on the tea and rubber plantations in Sri Lanka’s central highlands. Wife beating and fights as a result of alcohol is very common. Also four women workers were among many who died from excessive drinking.

“My elder brother died of alcohol. He drank a bottle of kassippu (a cheap, local brew) a day,” recalls Ramasamy Rajadurai, a tea plucker and trade union official who instantly became an ADIC volunteer.

Under the programme, children are also among those enlisted to tell other children how to wean their parents from alcohol.

Kalyaniperumal Kanagamany, 17 years, was a child volunteer who managed to persuade her father to stop drinking. “Even at school I was concerned … My father was an alcoholic and we couldn’t study because of the constant shouting and fights.”

The volunteers — men, women, youth and children — are trained by the NGO. “Our task was to advise people on the ill- effects of drinking and explain to them the benefits of not drinking,” says Satishchandra Wanasinghe, project coordinator.

“Appa (father), don’t drink, it smells. Don’t fight — we can’t study”, were some of the slogans. “Don’t drink” stickers were pasted all over the “line rooms”, the living quarters of tea plantation workers.

Hapugastenne tea estate produces some of the best low grown teas in Sri Lanka, the world’s biggest tea exporter. Tea grown on this estate is mostly for the export market in the Middle East, Russia and the CIS.

The estate management was desperate to find a solution to the rampant alcoholism problem among workers. “Our biggest problem was that workers were not turning up for work,” said estate superintendent Warusavitarne, a fourth-generation tea planter.

By 1995, 100,000 workers were no longer on the estate staff roll. “In 1989, we had 296,000 workers on the roll and this had dropped to 196,000 by 1995. Alcoholism was the problem.”

Before calling in the NGO, the superintendent tried to talk his workers out of the habit. After the funeral of an employee who died of alcoholism, he walked into the nearby home of the liquor sellers and pleaded with them to stop killing people.

But none of this worked. “Maybe I was not a good communicator and couldn’t get the message across,” Warusavitarne admits.

He sought the help of the NGO through the Plantation Housing and Social Welfare Trust, a semi-government firm responsible for the social welfare of plantation workers.

The project, which was supported by the UN children’s agency,

UNICEF, sought to reduce consumption of alcohol and improve the health of workers to “enable them to return to work and be better parents to their children”, according to Warusavitarne.

“We didn’t tell them to stop drinking but cut down (drinking),” he points out. We could have called in the police, but “I wanted the community to be involved … We were looking at a long term solution.”

The result: not one of the 196,000 estate workers in 1995 has reported sick and off work in 1999, he says. “We may not have been able to bring back the working population to the 1989 level but what is important is that we have straightened the curve and prevented further dropouts.”

 
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