“Tea and rubber can regain lost glory via pragmatic approach”

Thursday, 25 August 2016 00:00 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

Jivaka Atapattu, the newly-appointed Plantation Agricultural Specialist by the Ministry of Plantation Industries, said that he is confident that the tea and rubber estates can be restored to their past glory with a pragmatic approach to estate management, introducing good agricultural practices and with intensive field supervision. 

Atapattu, a veteran planter who started his career with a Scottish plantation company long before the estates were nationalised, was later the Chairman of the Sri Lanka Plantation Regional Board 2, and later the Managing Director of Kelani Valley Plantations Ltd. that came under the management of the Hayleys Group of companies. 

Here are excerpts of the interview:



Q: You have been away from the industry for many years, what made you accept this challenging task?

A: Yes, I have been away from the country for over 20 years, but accepted. Minister Navin Dissanayake’s invitation to come and help him restore the plantation industry to its pristine past. I was trained by top class senior Scottish and Ceylonese planters who knew the essentials of good agricultural practices and the nuances of good estate management under whom I worked for over 12 years. I served the nationalised estate management for another 17 years and finally for four years in senior management after estates were re-privatised. I therefore know quite intimately the various changes that have taken place over the years and how these estates can be once again returned to what it was before.


Q: How long will this take?

A: Of course rehabilitation is a long process; we could set the wheels in motion and one would be able to see some positive results in a year or two. But I envisage that a complete restoration of the tea and rubber estates to its pristine past may take as long as 10 years. The tea and rubber industries have suffered managerial and agricultural setbacks for many years. 

Fortunately, during the time that the estates were under nationalised management, there were many development programs that took place with World Bank and ADB funding. There was a massive development program that was launched under World Bank funding called the Medium Term Investment Plan (MTIP). A lot of good work was done under this program when tea and rubber factories were developed and massive replanting and infilling programs were undertaken plus some good cultivation practices. 

Unfortunately, the nationalised agencies (I was Chairman of one) found it difficult to manage these estates as an effective business enterprise, due to constant political interference and the Government’s tendency to give into the main labour union whose leader happened to be a powerful Minister in the Government at one time. 


Q: How come the current private management is allegedly doing so badly and unable to run these estates and the plantation companies efficiently? 

A: I have been appointed to assess the situation both on the ground, i.e. by personally visiting estates and ascertaining the real situation, and also to evaluate the methods of management of estates from Colombo Head Offices. In my opinion, the jury is still out on the performance of these companies. Some are doing quite well, whilst others are not. We need to study the reasons for the drop in productivity, which has fallen drastically in most estates, whilst the smallholders have substantially increased production by investing in new planting. 

Global demand for our teas has also dropped considerably due to international situations which are beyond our control, such as the Syrian civil war, the general instability in the Middle East, the weak Russian Ruble, etc. Added to this situation, there is also a complaint that the quality of our product has dropped considerably. Traditional buyers have complained to me that our teas lack density, lacks the traditional quality, and are not true to type, etc. These shortcomings have to be overcome by improving the standard of leaf, and attention to detail at estate field and factory level. 

I am going to commence visiting plantations within the next 10 days or so, and I will be able to ascertain what is going wrong.


Q: Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) have managed these estates now for some 25 years. How and why have they not identified these problems earlier? Surely there are several planters and plantation managers with your similar experience who have been around. Why have they not have been able to identify these shortcomings and corrected them?

A: I am sure there may be people who are as qualified or more qualified than me still around. Yes, it is indeed a mystery to me that for 25 years no one has intervened and no one has complained. It takes a while for agricultural neglect, if there is any, or weak management to start showing the adverse effects. But it would have surfaced long before 25 years! 

The Planters’ Association Chairman Roshan Rajadurai mentioned to the Minister of Plantations in my presence that the companies have been carrying losses for the past 20 years! That was quite an amazing statement. If this was true, how come they held on to these plantations, plough in money despite losing consistently for 20 years? 

If this is indeed true, how is it that some of these companies have invested in ventures overseas? How do you invest in overseas ventures when your primary business in Sri Lanka is losing money? There are several questions that need to be answered here and I am certain that these are being looked into. 

My primary function is to study and evaluate the agricultural practices implemented on the estates, whether they have been adhering to and continuing with the essential practices that one needs to implement in order to enhance the health of the soil and the tea bush. I also need to help them improve the quality of the finished product and the replanting and other development programs undertaken on the estate. Once this is complete, I will, with the help of other experts, draw up a comprehensive development program for the estates, and help them source the required capital to implement same. 


Q: What about the labour situation? It is reported that worker outputs are the worst in the world when compared with other tea growing countries and that there is also a shortage of workers on the estates.

A: This is a serious problem that needs to be addressed. There are several problems pertaining to the estate worker. Ever since the estate Tamil population received citizenship, it was quite evident that the writing was on the wall with regard to the heavy dependency on cheap labour. 

For over 120 years the estates were heavily dependent on a captive work force. Generation after generation, children of the estate workers who lived in ‘line rooms’ on the estates were offered work on the estates when they reached the legally employable age; it worked well for both sides; the estate Tamil population was assured of employment, whilst the estates were guaranteed of a committed and a comparatively cheap source of workers. 

All this changed after estates were nationalised and then after the workers who were Stateless, and agitating for citizenship were granted citizenship. As soon as they received citizenship, they were entitled to all the social benefits that citizens of this country enjoy, and this included free education from preschool to university. At the same time, they were also entitled to universal franchise and therefore became an important voting block that successive governments could not ignore. 

Naturally wages began to rise steeply and this affected the bottom line of all estates. Employers started to slow down on recruitment; and employment opportunities also started to dwindle. In the meantime the youth now educated were seeking greener pastures and better paying employment. This has caused a serious situation on some estates. The Planters’ Association said the other day that the workforce that was at 450,000 in 1992 has now reduced to 165,000. This is a serious situation that needs to be addressed.

The workforce on the estates at the moment is ageing and therefore there has been a drop in worker output. However, this is not the entire story. I believe hard work or laziness is not hereditary nor is this a new phenomenon that has developed in the estate sector. In my opinion, poor output can be attributed to weak management. It is reported that male workers work only three or four hours a day while female workers work only six hours a day. I don’t know whether this is true; if so then we need to do something about this or else, we might as well then close up shop and go home! I will soon find out. Workers must be made to understand that there is in force an eight-hour working day whatever the work is. That is the law of the country. 


Q: What is your final answer to restore the plantations to its past glory?

A: We need to improve efficiency at estate level and empower the superintendents and assistant superintendents after giving them intensive training in proper management technics. We need to incentivise the estate management, and the workers based on productivity, better quality standards. We must stop looking at tea and rubber as a mono-crop model but also introduce other crops such as coffee, cut flowers, timber and dairy in the up country and pepper, cinnamon, cloves and cocoa in the mid and low countries. 

We need to utilise the natural resources available in the plantation areas, such as alternate energy, eco-tourism, etc. We need to look at ways and means of automation of estate field operations to overcome the labour shortage, and automation in the factory too. In the end we should be looking at converting tea and rubber estates into agro-industrial units. 

RPCs that are doing well need to be encouraged and given assistance to develop further, but the industry needs to be regulated to ensure that minimum standards are maintained both in agriculture and in the finished product.