Govt. could handover plantations to workers


By Steve A. Morrell

Minister of Plantation Industries Mahinda Samarasinghe warned that country’s tea and rubber industries had a herculean task ahead of them in order to remain sustainable and that the government was considering the option of allocating plantation lands to the workers, who could sell their produce to the regional plantation companies. "Don’t forget, the government owns the plantation lands," the minister told planters at a recent forum.

Speaking at the recently held 76th AGM of the Ceylon Planters’ Society the minister said that although Tea earned US$ 1.5 billion last year, and rubber brought in about US$ 1.1 billion, the plantation industries could not be placed in an euphoric state of well being.

"Today, tea production is falling and rubber has to be imported to satisfy local consumption," Samarasinghe said.

Although production was on the decline, these two export crops were attracting good prices. "But, this will not last for long," the minister warned.

There was now world wide shortage of tea which boosted prices. Crop decline in India and Kenya resulting in lower supply world wide have provoked demand. This was tangible explanation for increased foreign exchange earnings, although the rupee had depreciated in dollar terms.

"We produce about 150,000 tons rubber annually but this is not sufficient for the domestic market. Domestic consumption alone amounts to almost 170,000 tones. This means we have to import the shortfall. The end result is that valuable foreign exchange has to be utilized to pay for these imports," Samarasinghe said.

We have to produce more. The project allocating 5,000 hectares for rubber at Monaragala was well on its way to augment production.

"We will also be planting rubber in Ampara (10,000 hectares) additionally Muliativu, Kilinochchi, and Vavuniya. The Research Institutes will give me in writing that rubber could be grown in these areas. These industries could not be left to its own course for progress. It is up to us to devise and examine our options to ensure the land we have is maximized for increased production. I am working on these aspects for increased rubber production," Samarasinghe said.

"The tea small holders are the life blood of the tea industry. We have 400,000 Tea Small holders, who are solely dependent on this crop. Tea is their life blood as much as it is ours. You have to improve production. There is no other way. However, we have to accept that our highest production target, if all goes to plan would be just about 350 million kilos. That is as far as we could go. Naturally your costs too would increase.

"The estate sector does not have the culture to accept voluntary wage cuts. In Singapore when they were in crisis, the entire work force top to bottom accepted a 10 % wage cut. What do we do in the alternative. Get on to the out –grower model. Don’t forget the land is ours; and we could tell you let you workers work the land and sell you their leaf. That is how the small holders operate. I would like to hear from you also the alternatives to import of tea. We have to talk of these subjects and come to an intelligent decision," the plantations minister said.

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