20th February 2000

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In a unique experiment on a Ratnapura estate, children wean their parents from alcoholism

Amma no, appa no

By Feizal Samath

Children in the Hapugastenne tea estate have vividly captured the alcohol problem in paint and prose - father hitting mother, father shouting at the kids or breaking pots and pans, father sleeping throughout the day, fights, children unable to study and so on.

The exhibition of drawings by children between the ages of five to 12 years illustrates the depth of alcoholism at the picturesque Hapugastenne tea plantation, nestling in the hills of Ratnapura.

The pictures say it all. Alcoholism not only devastated the families living and working on the plantation but also affected output, health and sanity.

"It was like a cancer that was slowly spreading," recalled Devon Warusavitarne, superintendent of the estate.

Four years after a unique alcohol-consumption reduction programme run by an NGO, alcohol consumption has come down - not entirely gone away - and brought in its wake improved work output and productivity. Workers, who stayed away probably because they were too drunk, are coming back to the tea fields.

"The programme was not aimed at people giving up alcohol - though many say they don't drink anymore - but to reduce abuse and consumption," said Mr. Warusavitarne, whose initiative in cutting down alcohol abuse at Hapugastenne is being cited as an example for other estates in the country to follow.

The exhibition of more than 25 pictures by estate children was held last December as part of the programme which brought together the estate management, a semi-government social welfare organization and the Alcohol and Drug Information Centre (ADIC), an NGO involved in alcohol and drug abuse work and the community. UNICEF funded the project which was launched in 1996.

Sakuntala Devi's painting shows a drunken man raising a stick to beat a woman. The woman has tears in her eyes, while around her lie broken pots and pans. A boy looks up in horror at the man. "Are you trying to be the thug in the house?" the woman asks.

Another picture by S. Prabhakaran depicts his father throwing pots and pans on the floor while his mother screams. Another picture has a burning cigarette inside a till to illustrate that smoking means burning money.

"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 preschool teacher who has worked on the estate for 17 years.

Though the exhibition is over, the paintings are still displayed on the Hapugastenne Sports Club walls as a reminder of the alcohol problem.

Alcohol abuse is a perennial problem amongst both men and women on tea and rubber plantations across the country. Along with the drinking comes the abuse, assault and finally death. Though both men and women are alcoholics, it is the men who turn violent and aggressive while the women may argue but are unlikely to get involved in fights.

Alcohol-related deaths were common on the estate, which has a population of 5,700, the highest on any Lankan plantation. "My elder brother died of alcohol. He drank a bottle of kasippu a day," said Ramasamy Rajadurai, a tea plucker and trade union official who instantly became an ADIC volunteer. The workers drink kasippu because it is cheap and available.

Kalyaniperumal Kanagamany, 17 years, too was glad to get involved with the programme as a child volunteer.

"Even at school I was concerned about alcohol abuse. My father was an alcoholic and we couldn't study because of constant shouting and fights." Her father does not drink anymore. Kanagamany visits homes and tells children how to wean their parents away from alcohol.

Preschool teacher Jayasuriya faced many problems at school. "There were women who came running to my school in fear, chased by drunken husbands wielding knives and sticks. I had to lock the women up in a room and confront the men, talk to them quietly and send them away to cool off.

"There were times I thought they would strike me too," the diminutive teacher noted, shaking her shoulders in fear while recalling these incidents.

At the small estate hospital, an average of 60 to 70 men and women sought treatment monthly for alcohol-related cuts and bruises. That number has now declined.

The volunteers were members of four target groups - men, women, youth and children - trained by ADIC officials to carry out the programmes.

Volunteers eagerly looked forward to the visits by ADIC officers to the estate.

"Appa, don't drink, it smells. Don't fight ... we can't study," were some of the messages the children were asked to tell their parents.

"Don't drink" stickers were pasted on doors and other posters were put up in the rows of line-rooms where families live.

Satischandra Wanasinghe, the plantations project coordinator at ADIC explained that they were asked to provide knowledge and change the attitudes of the estate population

"Our task was to advise people on the ill-effects of drinking and explain to them the benefits of not drinking.

Estate superintendent Warusavitarne is a veteran planter, coming from a family of four generations of planters. The Hapugastenne estate produces some of the best low-grown teas in Sri Lanka attracting drinkers mainly from the Middle East and Russia.

But it had its problems. "Our biggest problem was that workers were not turning up for work," he said. He found the numbers alarming during his first spell of duty here in 1985. When he returned for his second assignment on the same estate, he found 100,000 workers were off the roll.

"In 1989, we had 296,000 workers on the roll and this had dropped to 196,000 by 1995 and after inquiries I found alcoholism was the problem," Warusavitarne said, adding that four women had died from alcohol abuse.

"What could we do? Our labour was getting affected.

The health of the people was being ruined," he said, recalling that this situation and the fact that two of his own relatives had died of drug abuse, prompted him to take steps to arrest this crisis.

While paying his last respects to an employee who died of alcohol abuse, he was told one liquor brewer stayed nearby.

He walked to that home and told the man to stop the business or get off the land. The liquor traders were also estate workers.

With that, the estate superintendent began chatting to workers and urging them to stop drinking. "But these tactics didn't work. Maybe I was not a good communicator and couldn't get the message across." He then sought the help of ADIC through the Plantation Housing and Social Welfare Trust (PHSWT), a semi-government company responsible for the social welfare needs on plantations.

"We got in touch with ADIC and organised the alcohol reduction programme," says Dayananda Jayasekera, a PHSWT project officer involved in healthcare.

The programme was initially launched in two divisions of the estate. "Our plan was to cut consumption and improve the health of the drinkers. This would in turn help them to return to work and be better parents to their children," Mr. Warusavitarne said.

Another division on the estate independently ran the programme without any assistance. The kasippu mudalalis were also co-opted into the programme. "We told them to take their trade elsewhere," he said.

Within six months, there was an improvement. Those who stopped work returned to the fields. Estate officials said in one instance, a man bought a gold chain for his wife from the money that he would normally spend on drinking. Nearly 40 percent of the family income was being wasted on alcohol.

There was an easier way out of the problem - bringing in the police and removing the liquor traders.

But, he said, this would have been just a temporary solution to the problem."I wanted the community to get involved.

I wanted the drinkers themselves to say 'no' to drinking. We were looking at a long term solution, not a short term one."

Officials say with reduced consumption, worker discipline and family incomes have improved, even doubled, and there are fewer fights between parents.

The number of workers on the roll remains at 196,000, the same as in 1995.

"We may not have brought the working population to 1989 levels but we have straightened the curve and prevented further dropouts," Mr. Warusavitarne said, hoping that in time more people would return to the fields.

Perumal Rajah, a young worker and health volunteer, says the illicit liquor dealers are trying to come back to the estate and tempt people. "But we will fight back," he said, noting that it was necessary for the community to continue the alcohol-reduction programme.

ADIC officials say that the second phase of the programme which got underway in 1998 in six other divisions is due to be completed in two months' time.


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