Anura Gunasekera (2017)



Recently, my friend, Kavi Seneviratne,  formerly  Managing Director of Kelani Valley Plantations and, subsequently,  Managing Director of Hayleys Global Beverages, very generously gifted to  Dilmah, a set of old books on a wide range of aspects of the Plantation Industry. Amongst them was a tattered foolscap book with the spine exposed, the pages barely held together with disintegrating string and flaking glue, brown with age.

The printed publications dealt with a variety of subjects, authored by specialists in respective disciplines; technical, authoritative and as such treatises tend to be, at times both highly theoretical and pontifical. The foolscap book was, despite addressing similar issues related to Tea planting,    a complete contrast in content.  It contained the personal observations of a working plantation manager, converting the theories behind a multitude of everyday work practices on an estate, into actions of implementable dimensions.

This book had been maintained, in his own neat  handwriting on every single page,  by Mr. David Perkins, from  the early 19 fifties , when he was manager of Gampaha estate, Udapussellawa, till his retirement in 1964, from Brunswick estate, Maskeliya, when he had handed over the diary to his successor, Duncan Hermon. The latter, who retired in 1971, had presented the book to Kavi, then Assistant Manager on Brunswick. Incidentally, Kavi had been trained by Hermon on Brunswick itself.

Plantation management styles, and strategies, have undergone tremendous changes since Perkins’s day. His was an era when one developed one’s own strategy, method and style, and imposed it on the property in your custody.  Whilst the lessons of history and those passed on by predecessors played a part,  Individual prejudices, likes, dislikes and preferences also converged in determining the type of management one decided to implement. Clearly reflected in the management style were the manager’s personality traits.

Today’s plantation manager has, at his call, resources of technical and experimental knowledge, of a magnitude undreamt of by the plantation manager of Perkins’s time. His was an era when working planters unearthed much of the knowledge that they needed on a daily basis, at their own expense, on their own time, through a process of trial and error. It was also an era when a good plantation manager did not take anything for granted, even when information was handed down by a specialist when the working planter tested that theoretical knowledge for proof under actual working conditions and adapted it for use as he considered best. The good and conscientious plantation manager did not delegate these tasks to a subordinate; he did it personally and held himself responsible for the results he obtained.

Our is an era when every management action has a label, when every strategy is formalized and the science of management has a specialist for every facet. Accredited educational institutions award diplomas in plantation management, equivalent to a university degree,  at the culmination of exhaustive study programmes.  However, the practices that produce the tea that we market have not changed significantly in 150 years and, in all sincerity, it cannot be said that the new sophistication introduced to plantation management over time, have improved either the product or the plantation, proportionately. We are simply producing larger quantities of the same black tea.

David Perkins, in his work diary, modestly labeled, “ Notes on Tea Planting”, on the cover, addresses a wide range of routine issues, all of which are worth documenting, even briefly.

He has dealt with fertilizer mixtures for nursery plants, the volume per plant and method of application clearly specified. A system for measuring road metal has been illustrated with a diagram. His analysis of “Thatching Mana Grass” , carried out on Gampaha in the nineteen fifties,  addresses the initial harvesting , the required labour component, the volume of grass obtainable from a unit area, thickness and weight of spread, the time component for each segment of work, transport costs  and , at the conclusion of  a perfectly logical sequence of steps, arriving at the total cost of thatching per acre of tea ( Rs 225.00/acre, all inclusive- 7.5 tons of Mana !!!).

Other practices, such as mixing soil for VP plants,  preliminary preparation and planting of shade trees( accompanied by hand-drawn diagrams)and the number of seeds obtainable from a pound of shade tree seed,  composting, trenching, metalling of roads, spraying with both knapsacks and mist-blowers, costs of workers quarters repairs, tea supplying, the use of blasting powder, tea nursery costs, all have been computed in meticulous detail. The fields on which the trials were carried out and results obtained are recorded. The extent of field paths and motor roads on Brunswick have been calculated to the last foot, and costs of repair/maintenance apportioned, accordingly. The notes on aspects of manufacture reflect the same obsession with parameters and benchmarks derived from actual, in practice, trials. In the case of some of the field trials, he has named the assistant managers who carried out the actual work under his instructions; Andre Titus and A.S. Pilimatalauwe.

It is not known whether David Perkins was familiar with the term, “ Ergonomics “, bandied about with casual ease by the present day plantation executive, but that is what exactly Perkins’ notebook represents; a perfect example of the application of  the theory of ergonomics in actual practice, documented with a wealth of detail and underpinned by critical, measurable observations, that a doctoral dissertation on the subject could not have bettered.

Clipped to the notebook, at appropriate intervals, were also written exchanges between Perkins and various plantation service providers, suppliers of chemical compounds, maintenance material  and equipment, the Tea Research Institute and fellow plantation managers; all this correspondence dealt with a wide range of subjects related to routine plantation practices, with searching questions posed by Perkins to a spectrum of experts, compelling them to justify  with quantifiable evidence, the claims for product effectiveness, or the practical validity of  theoretical assertions. Apart from demonstrating Perkins’ passion for ensuring optimum results from the practical application of theoretical information, it was also evidence of the intellectual curiosity that he brought to bear upon the routine of plantation management.

David Perkins was not alone then, in this display of diligence and total attention to detail. As a young assistant manager on Sheen Estate, Pundaluoya( 1971-1975), I recall the management control legacy left by Percy Gray, who had been manager from the early 19 fifties till 1964. His “ Conference Notes”, which detailed every aspect of work,  from pollarding a Grevillea and lopping Dadaps, to planting a large VP clearing, left not even the most insignificant detail in doubt. I recall that even the sizes of weeding scrapers and fern removers ( ‘eetie”), were specified with accompanying diagrams, the dimensions provided from the tip of the blade to the end of the handle. Preserved over the years, these documents too were testament to the same passion for both excellence and exactitude, that would have driven David Perkins as well.

Apart from the wealth of detail offered, it is the simplicity of  Perkins’ notebook that should provide the present day plantation executive some serious food for thought. It is also a simplicity which belies the volume of work and the diligent application that must have preceded the recorded results, which would still serve as a guideline for the plantation manager of today. It also underwrites the lesson that in plantation management, what finally matters most is not the envisioning of grandiose plans, but the achievement of minimum efficiencies at field and factory level, in the myriad of tasks that make up plantation work practices. It is the manager’s personal touch, his personal attention to the small details, his presence on location where the action is taking place, his hand constantly on the tiller, that will finally guide the ship home.

Kavi also recalls how useful this notebook had been, when he was a young assistant on Brunswick. Drawing a lesson from the Perkins diary, he had applied the same principles of calibration of material management and task identification,  to the organization of the Brunswick nursery, a fact which had been commented on with great appreciation by the then Visiting Agent, S.B.Pilapitiya, on one of the latter’s visits to the estate.

In the last fifty years of the plantation industry’s 150 year history, which I too have been part of, an era when  major transitionary events have impacted  on the industry in rapid succession, we appear to have lost touch with some of those simple, but important  values,  which formed the bedrock of efficient plantation management  in the time of our predecessors. I am categorical in the observation that the majority of modern plantation managers have, for various reasons, become detached from the ground realities of daily, routine work practices on the plantation, particularly at field level.

It is my view that to rebuild this industry, and to reinforce the pride of 150 years of Tea in Sri Lanka,  that we need to urgently rethink our plantation management strategies. Perhaps it is still not too late to re-visit the grassroots and to rediscover, and re-learn,   some of our lost skills,  and to restore the old values which, in the not too distant past, were the fundamentals of the plantation management ethic.

By Anura Gunasekera



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