In a startling revelation, a consultant to a tea factory said tea factories were running at a loss was mainly due to a lack of output as is well known.
But, he lamented that most tea growers have stopped planting tea nowadays and have begun alternative businesses. Lack of attention by the relevant authorities has given rise to this pathetic situation. If tea plantations could be encouraged to keep planting tea instead of resorting to alternatives, the tea industry will thrive for centuries more making good for the whole country,â he said.
Sri Lanka takes pride in its glorious world renowned Ceylon Tea brand, while the owners of small tea estates and other thousands of lives, directly and indirectly connected, who sweat to produce that world famous brand, are slowly enduring what they see as a near deaths scenario. The lack of support and continued ignorance by the relevant authorities who otherwise should make an effort to uphold the industry are responsible for this situation.
Tea cultivation was introduced to Sri Lanka by British colonials and has been the bread and butter of millions of people for over two centuries. With tea becoming one of Sri Lankaâs primary sources of foreign income, steps were taken to encourage tea small holders around the country in addition to the big estates.
The Ceylon Tea Small Holdersâ Association said there were over 800 tea factories in Sri Lanka that came under their umbrella but sadly about 187 factories have closed down due to the failure to uplift them. It is unfortunate that the authorities are not paying attention to uplift the tea industry which is bringing in the fourth largest foreign investment into the country.
Lack of tea leaves
Speaking to Ceylon Today, one tea factory owner said the main reason for the closure of tea factories was the lack of sufficient tea leaves. He pointed out that each tea factory had a certain capacity to set up, adding that if the tea harvest was not enough to meet that capacity, cost of production would be more than the revenue earned. Tea factory owners face many difficulties, he said. Most owners including him were heavily indebted and when incomes are low, they were unable to pay off loan installments.
Another person who is currently a consultant to a tea factory, airing his views about the crisis in the tea industry today, said due to the economic problems they face, it was sometimes difficult even to pay electricity and water bills. Confirming the earlier tea factory ownerâs sentiments also agreed that the reason for tea factories to run at a loss, was mainly due to the lack of output.
âIf we want to keep production at a stable level, factories should get sufficient raw material, mainly the tea leaves. But most tea growers have stopped their plantations nowadays and they have started other alternative businesses. Lack of the attention paid by the relevant authorities has led to this situation. If growers can be encouraged to keep planting tea, the tea industry will thrive and run for centuries making good for the whole country,â he said. Though this person has clearly identified the issue, the authorities seem to turn a blind eye and take an apathetic view.
Chairperson of the All Island Tea Small Holdersâ Association, K.L Gunaratne said the largest contribution to the tea industry was from the tea small holders while plantation companies were just running their old plantations and not even bothering to replant once the plantations reached their maximum. Replanting was overdue but the shrubs were left to their wn devices. The problems faced by small holders must be given prompt solutions to save the industry and these problems were the root cause of problems in the overall tea industry.
Approximately, 95% of the countryâs tea production, is targeted at the international market. Tea exports earn approximately US $ 1428 million annually and about 75.6% of the total tea production in Sri Lanka is based on small holdings, whereas 24.5% is based on plantation companies. Over 188,175 hectares (727 sq mi) or approximately 4% of the countryâs land area is covered in tea plantations. Accordingly 55% of Sri Lankaâs tea plantations are owned by tea small holdings and 44% owned by plantation companies. It is clear that small holdings tea plantations play a major role in the overall tea production in Sri Lanka.
The main problem faced by tea growers was the high cost of production according to Gunaratne. He pointed out that cost of production had increased significantly. One acre of land should have about 5,000 tea shrubs whereas most of the tea estates have only 3,000 to 3,500 tea plants. The whole land has to be fertilised and this is a serious problem faced by tea growers.
According to Gunaratne, this situation has arisen as a result of the lack of proper knowledge of growers on how to maintain estates. However, no one can evade the issue by putting the entire responsibility on them. Since tea plays a vital role in developing the economy, tea growers should be educated by the authorities on how to keep the estates going and how tea bushes should be taken care of . Basically, if they play the proper role in the drama, then the authorities too should in turn play their role and ensure the continued growth of the tea industry. But seemingly one role is being played in an apathetic manner!
Gunaratne said there were field officers who were appointed to visit estates frequently, meet owners and educate them about the entire process - from planting to harvesting.
The main authoritiesâ apathetic manner applies to field officers too it seems, because their approach too is a donât care attitude. Some tea growers in a village far away from Ratnapura spoke to Ceylon Today. What more examples of neglect than this? Most of these small estates have not seen a field officer at all in these areas and were shocked to learn that there was such as category. âOur estates have never been visited by an officer. We buy plants, grow them, harvest and earn some money.
That is how the process goes and we know nothing beyond that,â they said.
Speaking to Ceylon Today, a representative from the Tea Small Holdings Development Authority, Ratnapura Regional Office said there were 25 such officers appointed to visit fields in the Ratnapura area and that they had done a great service to develop tea plantation. When told of the existing situation in some estates. They agreed to look into the matter and take necessary steps to rectify the situation.
According to reports from the Tea Small Holdersâ Association, approximately 500,000 people are directly dependent on the tea industry and over two million indirectly depend on tea-related employment. Most of the tea plantations have already been destroyed and growers have got into other jobs. Now there is no point in expressing regrets. The authorities should keep an eye before something happens.
According to Gunaratne, tea cultivation has hit very low levels and was a disaster. Thousands of people in the country would be helpless if the authorities donât take note and take remedial action immediately.
We met Wasantha who cultivates two acres of tea in his land and survives with the income he earns from it. According to him, a kilogram of tea leaves, which could have been sold for Rs 100 until April this year, can now be sold for only about Rs 75. However, to plucking tea he has to pay Rs. 30 per kilogram of tea leaves. That is, after selling a kilogram of tea leaves for Rs. 75, and handing over Rs 30 to the plucker, the estate owner gets a pittance of Rs 45!
âBy selling a kilogram of tea leaves, we have a marginal price of Rs. 45. Agents come to the village to collect tea leaves. Finally, they charge a transport fee and deduct a certain amount of tea leaves too. Sometimes they deduct about two three kilograms of tea leaves. Owners of tea factories as well as those who collect tea leaves make huge profits. But as growers we get very little income and we have to do a lot of things with this meagre amount,â Priyantha added.
This is a problem faced by many farmers here as well. A common problem faced by paddy farmers, vegetable growers, and fruit growers is that their products are not affordablity priced. It is the middlemen who make profits from it all. Seemingly, tea growers also face the same problem. There are plenty of institutions set up to improve the tea industry. Simply, the tea industry is dependent on tea growers and if their lives and estates can be developed, the tea industry will automatically develop.
Demand on the decline
Gunaratne also revealed that the demand for Ceylon tea from foreign countries was gradually on the decline. He said Pakistan, a country which used to be one of the best buyers of our tea, had reduced the purchase of Ceylon tea. He also said Russia was also a good buyer and that they too had reduced purchasing tea from Sri Lanka.
âThe only solution to increase the international demand for Ceylon tea, is to re-establish its marketing process. It is the responsibility of the authorities and there is a special fund through which the marketing process is done and is funded by tea exporters. The authorities have to make use out of that and do the needful to improve the industry which is their responsibility too,â Gunaratne added.
He also claimed that the problems facing growers need to be addressed quickly and that the Government and the relevant authorities should pay close attention to the price paid to growers when there was no change in the price of tea in the international market.
It is natural to take care of something which is valuable. Why donât the relevant authorities pay the much- needed attention to preserve the tea industry which plays such a vital role in strengthening the economy of the country taking the name of the country around the world!