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There’s plenty of beedi in our seas

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By Ajith Perera

It appears that fishermen in northern and north western Sri Lanka have made a slight change to their trade and are not only casting nets for fish, but also a bountiful harvest of beedi leaves or tendu coming from India. 

The Gulf of Mannar is evidently teeming with beedi leaves, perhaps even more than fish, as just last month the Navy – which is quite rightly lesser known for its fishing skills – pulled out as much as 1,456 kg of leaves in 33 packages off Mannar, whilst they also reeled in 1,232 kg off Udappuwa– a right royal catch. 

This amusing but farcical situation also presents grave concerns over the health, security and economic well-being of our nation and its citizens. 

First and foremost is the long-standing and widely acknowledged issue of smuggling in the Gulf of Mannar, which serves as a haven for brazen smuggling of goods, guns, humans and narcotics for decades. The end of the civil war opened out the bountiful gulf and straits for fishing, but due to our close proximity to India this also opened the floodgates for unscrupulous trade. 

Whilst the Navy no doubt is doing its utmost to control smuggling, it is common knowledge amongst all quarters that a great of deal trafficked items still make it to Sri Lankan shores. We must empower and equip the Sri Lankan Navy with greater resources and technology to tackle this battle.  In addition to the 2,688 kg netted here, the Navy reported it had confiscated over 7,000 kg of tendu leaves in northern waters in preceding months, which amount to over 10,000 kg or 10 tons in just a matter of months. 

Had these consignments of tendu reached Sri Lankan shores they would have produced over 35 million sticks of illegal beedi – by virtue – with no revenue to Government. The smuggling of tendu and in effect illicit tobacco products presents a double-edged sword to authorities, as in addition to the loss in revenue it is also then faced with grave impediments to public health and health expenditure borne by the state. These 35 million sticks of beedi would have amounted to Rs. 175 million spent by the public with no revenue to State; but ill-gotten gains to smugglers. 

It is paramount that the Government and its machinery take note of these developments and device stringent and effective mechanisms to counter the myriad of industries and smugglers that thrive due to illegal activity. The beedi industry serves as a good case-in-point as for long it has been ignored as a small cottage industry serving grassroots customers and consumers. But, in reality, the trade has grown as large – perhaps even larger – as the legal cigarette industry, with some Government ministers and Parliamentarians too reportedly some of its key stakeholders.

Beedi serves as an attractive trade as there is no tax levied on finished products, with the cess on tendu leaf imports serving as the only form of revenue to government, despite it being a tobacco product similar to a cigarette. With thousands of kilograms of tendu leaf making their way across the gulf, the Government gains next to nothing from the trade. 

Sri Lanka needs to get its act together on matters of policy. We are at often times limited by tunnel vision, resorting to inadequate policy and actions that often exacerbate the issue at hand. This is also due to the disparaging political culture and way of governance, which is party and personality focused as opposed to policy and productivity. 

The past three years and the political circus that has immersed Sri Lanka serves as a prime example, where very little has taken place for the good of the nation with onus falling on individual and party-political perpetuation. Until such time we will keep fishing in waters that yield no fish. 

(The writer is a retired Administration, Shipping and Maritime Security Consultant in Sri Lanka and the Middle East.)

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