Estate planter is country’s unsung hero

R. Dahanayake (2011)

For decades, in pre and post-Independence Sri Lanka, tea and rubber have been the country’s main foreign exchange earners. Unlike other industries, more than 85 percent of the raw materials for tea and rubber production are made locally, which means comparatively low costs to the State.

Tea and rubber are highly worker-intensive, involving clear-cut direction and execution for productivity and quality. How is this productivity and quality maintained? It does not happen automatically. It happens through meticulous direction and execution.

It is here that the role of the “planter” comes into full force. The planter combines the energies of men, material and machinery (the “Three M’s”), in the fullest sense. The planter’s management of the Three M’s is what produces Sri Lanka’s wonder beverage – tea, and its high-quality natural rubber.

A planter is the prime contributor to Sri Lanka’s growth. He is a self-starter and motivator. It is he who drives the workforce – to grow, produce and process, and often under very trying conditions.

The planter must have a rigorous and intensive training in field work, cultivation, harvesting, scientific applications (fertilisers, etc.), manufacturing, pay-rolls, and the managing of information systems. A planter is a jack of all trades and a multi-tasker. He is the complete industry man.

He administers an estate with a large resident workforce. He has to look after their welfare, which includes housing, co-operative societies, medical attention and facilities, and so on. A planter has to be a teacher, a school principal, a father, a brother, a technician, a doctor, a co-op manager, a district secretary, a custodian, and finally a leader. He must look after and guide a resident population of a couple of thousand people, most of whom lack a basic education and social status. These are the people who have laboured to give our country a “brand identity”.

Sadly, few in the tea and rubber business appreciate the contribution of the planter. His work includes growing, producing and processing, and also marketing – all buzz-words in the corporate world. These days the talk is of revenue derived from the tea and rubber industries, value addition, and the ethical branding of teas. Our vision is to make Sri Lanka one of the world’s “tea hubs.”

Let us not forget the eminent planters of yesteryear, who served the country at corporate and national levels. People like Ken Balendra, of John Keells, and Cubby Wijetunga, of Nestles, took their companies to ever greater heights. One should not forget the late Ranjan Wijeratne, who spearheaded the move to crush terrorism in the South. Today, Nishantha Wickramasinghe heads the national carrier, Sri Lankan Airlines. All these people were once planters. Our estate workers are the critical factor in Sri Lanka’s tea-rubber success story. Sadly, planters today are not given the credit due to them as drivers of economic growth. This failure to recognise their contribution is especially sad in the light of the country’s rapid development.

I urge all estate planters and estate planter-related bodies to make the planters’ presence felt by the nation. The planters are the people behind the “Sri Lankan brand and identity.”


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