VICE wise, the country is undergoing a challenging time. On the one hand the Gambling Bill has been placed before Parliament and the nearing festive season is a time of excess and alcohol is never the exception in this scenario.Despite the Government’s stringent ‘Mathata Thitha’ policy, consumption rates seem to point at an increase, underscoring the importance of creating awareness to curb the menace.
Regardless of all the alarm calls and chest beating that this topic necessarily results in, it must be taken from a pragmatic point of view. Statistics from the Excise Department show that duty revenue on liquor expanded by 19% to Rs. 14,257 million in the first five months of 2010 over the previous year. During the first half of 2009 the revenue was Rs. 12,006 million, showing that there is an increase despite numerous attempts to reduce consumption through increased taxes.
For the puritans, the fact that during the last year production of hard and malt liquor decreased by 10% and 3% respectively compared to 2008 might be cause for celebration. However, the revenue collection continues to grow, showing that even though the production levels are dropping, imports are growing, resulting in higher revenue to the Government. Even though this may appear positive at first glance when considering the development drive that is being planned around tourism, expansion of the 2,800 foreign and local liquor licences is likely. The bulk of these licences have been issued to the Colombo and Gampaha Districts.
With a Gambling Bill before Parliament and the possible empowering of ministers to appoint gambling areas in any part of the country, the vice ratio of Sri Lanka seems set to rise. The argument for and against this kind of development will continue and the public should have a forum in which to voice their concerns. Dissemination of powers to issue gambling licences could result in haphazard establishment of vice dens that would be irresponsible in the extreme. Clearly the time has come for all stakeholders to look at tourism-centric vice from a practical viewpoint and ensure that it is properly regulated so that vulnerable people such as children are not exposed.
Many countries have deployed a sacrificial zone so that vice activities are concentrated in one section of a city or country. People who are in these areas have to be made aware of what is being planned and given a chance to adapt themselves to the changes – it should also be made clear that the social problems that might result from these activities will be dealt with, for it would be impossible to stamp them out completely.
Parliament has a huge task ahead. To decide whether gambling should or should not come into Sri Lanka – and if so to what extent. These are decisions that need to be addressed. Even though gambling has been in Sri Lanka, it has largely remained contained to Colombo and under the ‘foreigners only’ tag that has protected locals from losing their heads in these pastimes. Even though some might consider this to be discriminatory, it might be a good idea to continue this to other gambling zones as well.
The arguments for and against will continue until most people are exhausted with the subject. Yet that is how it must be, for any lax vigilance on the issue could pave the way for irresponsible behaviour. Regulating the income from these casinos, training people, adapting the common man to behave responsibly and dealing with the other vices that will spring up in connection to gambling will require stringent measures not just from the Government but all stakeholders as well.