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People like Kandasamy believe that collecting toddy would end with people like him

The tourism industry in Sri Lanka has been on the rise and Sri Lanka is often portrayed as a must-visit destination for vacationers and travelers. While Sri Lanka itself has much to offer tourists, the Northern Province is especially attractive both to locals and foreigners. While the hotel industry has been on the rise and hotels and guest houses are emerging like mushrooms, there seems to be a serious lack of development in local industries, especially those that will be beneficial to tourism.

One such industry is the toddy industry. Sri Lanka has both coconut toddy and palmyrah toddy and the Northern Province is known for the latter. However, both toddy tappers and those who keep track of the industry and its growth are of the opinion that the toddy industry is not being developed and thus would soon diminish.

Sarveswaran explained that first of all, toddy should be moralized. This, he went on to explain, would affect the tourism industry and also reduce the consumption of other, foreign liquors

“The palmyrah toddy industry can be linked to local tourism and toddy should be introduced to people from other areas of the country as well as foreigners,” Colombo University Law Faculty Senior Lecturer A Sarveswaran said. He explained that first of all, toddy should be moralized. This, he went on to explain, would affect the tourism industry and also reduce the consumption of other, foreign liquors.

There are many advantages of moralizing toddy consumption, Sarveswaran added. “Consumption should be moralized and toddy should be freely available,” he said.
In Jaffna, toddy can only be purchased from the cooperatives. There is a Rs. 5,000 fine if toddy tappers and collectors are caught selling toddy. This shows how limited the avenues are when purchasing toddy. However, the method also affects the toddy tappers as they make a pittance in comparison to what the cooperatives make.

“A liter is sold for Rs. 42. The cooperative in turn sells it to the consumer for Rs. 70 per liter,” said Sinniah Kandasamy, a toddy tapper who has been in the industry for 30 years.
The process of toddy production involves sap extraction, collection and fermentation. The toddy tappers and collectors are involved in these steps, however, once the toddy is made, it is given to the cooperatives which are in charge of distribution and selling. This means that the cooperatives make a profit, which, according to Kandasamy is Rs. 28 per liter.

A toddy tapper’s job is risky. A toddy tapper spends most of his time on the trees.  Firstly, the sap is extracted and collected by cutting the flower of the palm tree. It is collected from the cut flower of the palm tree through a container which is fixed at the end of the flower stump. The flower stump should be carved or sliced once every two days. Accordingly, the entire process takes approximately two weeks.

However, the liquid collected would be very sweet and non-alcoholic until it is fermented. The quantity of toddy collected cannot be determined and would vary from tree to tree.
The toddy which is collected is then sold to the cooperative.

Thus while the cooperatives make a profit, it is the toddy tappers and collectors who do the hard work. According to Kandasamy, compensation is only given for the first injury and nothing is given thereafter. While those who spend their work hours in the safety of an air conditioned office have insurance, these men who spend their days on trees are not offered insurance or medical claims.

“We are given Rs. 1,500 as compensation by the cooperative when we sustain injuries for the first time and nothing afterwards. I have fractured and broken my legs due to accidents four times. But we never received help after the first accident,” Kandasamy said.
Kandasamy also spoke about how the toddy industry is on a downward trend. A want and need for a better life means that less people join the industry. “I have four daughters. Therefore, there is no one who would do this job in my family after me. In addition, the younger generation today is interested in improving themselves. They want to study and learn new things. They want to lead a better life. Therefore, collecting toddy would end with us most probably,” he said.

This further adds to the need of developing the toddy industry. The livelihood of many would be improved and a growth in the industry can lead to an increase of job opportunities. Further, the toddy industry itself could be used to boost tourism in Sri Lanka.

While many would put toddy on the same shelf as moonshine, it contains medicinal values and is considered a healthy beverage if consumed adequately. Thus it is important to boost the toddy industry and make people aware of the value of toddy.

“The toddy tappers are not unionized,” Sarveswaran said. In fact, even the Palmyrah Development Board seems to not involve itself with the toddy tappers and collectors.
The Palmyrah Development Board Chairman S Kokulathasan said that the main responsibility of the Palmyrah Development Board is to offer technological assistance to the cooperative officers rather than working with the toddy tappers directly. “Each year a fund is allocated by the Resettlement, Reconstruction and Hindu Religious Affairs Ministry for the development of the industry,” Kokulathasan said adding that they are yet to receive the funds for this year.

“The fund is mostly used for the technical improvements in the process,” he further said. According to him, the machinery used in the process is manufactured by the local engineers.  He also mentioned that currently they are looking for a suitable land to build a new toddy bottling plant which will include the installation of a newly invented toddy bottling machine. This machine has been developed by an engineer from Jaffna.
Kokulathasan, agreeing with Kandasamy, said that these technological improvements protect the quality of toddy that it prevents fermented toddy from converting in to vinegar.

Although the Palmyrah Development Board is aware that there is a high demand for palmyrah toddy, and it is yet to take action in developing this traditional industry. “It’s not only toddy, other palmyrah sap based products like jaggery, treacle, sugar candy, palmyrah sugar and vinegar as well as the fruit based products have high demand,” he pointed out.

Despite this high demand, it is noticeable that the needed attention is not given to secure this traditional industry. As Kandasamy the toddy tapper lamented, toddy industry is dying due to the lack of attention given from the toddy tappers to the final product. Developments will have to be initiated from the basic stage – from toddy tappers and expand it to the final product, and not vice versa, in order to save this important tourist attraction in the Northern Province.

The toddy industry itself could be used to boost tourism in Sri Lanka | (Pics by Sakuna M Gamage)
The toddy industry itself could be used to boost tourism in Sri Lanka | (Pics by Sakuna M Gamage)