‘Govt still has option of estate takeover under Expropriation Bill ’
* Tea small holders should be regrouped and empowered once again - RatnasiriJune 21, 2012, 12:00 pm
Thrice Prime Minister and four times Plantation Industries Minister Ratnasiri Wickremanayake, now tagged Senior Minister, reminisces the circumstances which led to the nationalisation of estates in 1975, the Land Reforms Commission and his pioneering efforts of the Thay Skakthi program which empowered the tea smallholder.
The nationalisation of the estates in 1975 came in the wake of a few British sterling companies owning all tea and rubber estates and some local companies. The estates were taken over by the Land Reform Act aimed at empowering the small holder and under the same act, the estates run by local companies and all private land holdings were also taken over exceeding 50 acres to be distributed among the landless.
There was a dearth of land for the poor people where there was not even a burial ground for them and the reforms came from the then Minister of Agriculture and Lands Hector Kobbekaduwa (later SLFP Presidential candidate at the infamous referendum in 1982!) in whose constituency in Kandy and the entire region the problem was felt in a big way, the former Premier reminisced.
"This was considered mandatory at that time as we could not have foreigners owning our land and estates and this was one of the policies of the SLFP- led United Front Government of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. Each country adopts policies to suit with changing times and land alienation of one of the key cornerstones of the policies of that government, he intoned, his memory intact at 79.
One of the aspects of the land reform and the state takeover was to provide land to the landless and by which we empowered the tea, rubber and coconut smallholder, the former Premier reminisced, obviously alluding euphemistically to the context of the first JVP uprising starting on April 5, 1971 where plans were even afoot to kidnap Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike from the Savoy cinema at Wellawatte after the 9.30 movie that night!
"The estates which were run by the British and the local private sector which were run at profits were soon sustaining losses with the government takeover. There was a common board of Directors of the Janatha Estates Development Board and the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation which were combined and that was the way I ran the two institutions under one umbrella and the expenses were less," he said.
Both institutions were turned around by Wickremanayke but later the split had taken place. The split had resulted in the losses again with the states demarcated between the two state institutions and with the administrative machinery being changed for practical reasons for easy communication access and transport and that was where the problems arose.
Responding to a question as to whether the Sterling companies could not be converted into rupee companies and owned and managed by the local corporates in the manner that they are run now, he insisted that the land alienation policy of the government empowering the landless was a mandatory political decision in accordance with those times.
Asked whether the nationalization of the estates were good and effective or whether he believed that it was an outright disaster in accordance with the perception of disasters associated with the state running business, he said that one of the positive aspects was the establishment of Thay Shakthi program which empowered the tea smallholder. There was the Thuru Saviya for rubber and Kapruka for coconut.
The Tea Small Holders Development Authority also came in at that time, but the legislation was drafted by the then Minister of Plantation Minister Dr Colvin R. De Silva, Wickremanayake’s predecessor of the same government. But with the exit of the "red" political parties from the Srimavo Bandaranaike government in 1976, the onus to "carry the baton and run" fell on him.
Wickremanayake belived that there was no purpose to restrict the bill to a mere piece of paper, but decided to make full use of it. He motivated the small holder to grow tea, which was fetching very good prices at that time. Tea Smallholders were established countrywide and his own constituency, where tea was not grown, was starting to develop tea estates based on small holdings.
The tea small holders also were not without problems. They had the issues of fertilizer and markets to sell their leaf. It is then that he decided to bring the tea smallholders under one umbrella and to empower them. The decision also paid rich dividends where they were even having their own tea factories and fertilizer manufacturing operations.
He said that the UNP was responsible for changing the entire spectrum of land policy was the turning point. "When you undo one thing, it becomes very difficult to redo it, he said. Unless there is dedication, tenacity of purpose and sincerity, no venture will be successful and doing anything crooked for easy gains is not something that should happen at all and government policy should be consistent irrespective of the government in power, he said.
He believes that the UNP government re-vesting the lands in the private sector was bad and a complete reversal of the SLFP policy, which was also approved in Parliament. A national policy should be constant and remain unchanged.
Asked what lessons could be learnt from that and also in the context of the Expropriation Bill, he conceded that some Regional Plantation Companies were managed well while others were not. Unfortunately we have lost the right calibre of people in the industry who woke at 5 am and visited the estates but that calibre is not there now, he said.
"There is a total change of dedication and attitude in the plantation sector now. Right have to be also accompanied by obligations as well. We are not serving the British Government anymore, but we are serving ourselves!," he remarked
Dropping a bombshell, he said that the government still has the option of taking over the estates once again under the Expropriation Bill provided that there is dedication and commitment by the small holders, both tea and rubber. There was a time that the smallholders were producing 60% of the national production in tea with the Regional Plantation Companies, only 40%, the pioneer of the "Thay Shakthi’ movement said.
The rubber industry was also doing well. Rubber and coconut small holders who have less than five acre extents comprise 40% of the land extents.
He said that the team small holders will have to be regrouped and empowered once again. We will have to be behind them and rededicate them to their service. He said that their establishing their own factories- tea or rubber was a rather difficult thing now with the escalating costs. They should get together, he said.
The tea small holders produce 65% of the national output today with the Regional plantation Companies produce only 35%. Then, most of the specialized teas which go into the Iranian market also come from the Low Growns by the smallholders, all of which should be indeed fulfilling for the former thrice -Prime Minister and four times Plantation Industries Minister, whose brainchild was the empowerment of the tea smallholder as he becomes an octogenarian next year.
Pix by Nihal Chandrakumara
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