By Zahara Zuhair
Though the income generated from tobacco farming is crucial for the farmers to put bread on their table, the social consequences connected with the crop and the livelihood remains negative and controversial.
As consumption tobacco is known to be the single greatest cause of preventable deaths globally, many countries including Sri Lanka have been taking measures to reduce tobacco consumption and as a result, the Sri Lankan government has taken measures to increase the tax on cigarettes close to 90 percent.
However, during a recent visit to a tobacco farm in Galewela, the farmers had contrasting views to share. They said tobacco farming had improved their income positively, asserting that growing tobacco is more profitable than farming other crops as it yields high returns. It was also cited that it is the main economic activity of many families in that area.
Sharing his story, Galewela Barn Owner Association Chairman H.M.W. Srirathna Banda said that he started to grow tobacco in early 1990s in a six-acre land, when he realised the income he got from other crops was not sufficient. According to him, he has a better income now.
The factors favouring the tobacco farming as mentioned by him was the warm climate of the area he lives, as well as the fertilizers used for tobacco farming, which remain in the soil, benefit the crops grown after, such as paddy, chilli, etc.
But he claimed that certain officials object them growing tobacco, calling them to abandon it. He said farmers have been pressurized for the last three to four years in this regard.
As the tobacco farmers often face the question as to why they chose to grow tobacco over any other crop, sharing his perspective on it, another tobacco farmer said that he is raking in a good income out of it, while noting that growing other crops such as onions and chilli was exhausting and there is no fixed price for them.
Tobacco cultivation in Sri Lanka
The Ceylon Tobacco Company PLC (CTC) officials, who organised the tour for journalists to create awareness of the socioeconomic impacts of tobacco cultivation, said that it is a legal trade and through this they empower and improve the livelihoods of many families.
However a counter argument could easily be brought in as to how many lives tobacco and related products destroy in return.
CTC Head of Operations Dr. Rukshan Gunatilaka sharing insights on tobacco cultivation in Sri Lanka said it infuses Rs.1.5 billion to the rural economy annually, while 20,000 farmers are involved in tobacco cultivation and less than 0.1 percent of arable land is used for cultivation.
“One should look at the cash component coming to their (farmers) pocket from tobacco because it has a guaranteed price. The seeds are given and then we buy the entire production they produce. So this is the type of model we have, they are getting a high return in investment,” he said.
He added that they have eliminated Rs.2 billion of foreign currency outflow, which would otherwise be spent on leaf importation.
Meanwhile, talking about the internal challenges, Gunatilaka said as every smoker needs to have a consistent smoke though out the year, it’s challenging to provide a consistent product, due to different natural conditions such as flood, drought, etc.
Considering the dry weather condition in the country in the past few months, he said they face a situation where they will have to import tobacco leaves from Pakistan, this year.
He also said the pressure exerted on tobacco farmers by certain parties has made lives difficult for CTC as well as to the farmers. On top of that, the higher taxes proposed by the government could put CTC in an extremely bad wicket, making its business unviable in Sri Lanka, he said.
CTC is said to be the single highest contributor to government revenue. It was noted that in the previous financial year, they have paid Rs.91.6 billion as taxes to the government and this year the number would be around Rs.100 billion.
Tobacco is an extremely resilient plant, which grows anywhere, where other agricultural crops won’t grow and would require a period of four months between transplant and harvest.
The visiting journalists were exposed to a demonstration of tobacco production during the visit. It appeared to be a labour-intensive activity and requires a great attention to detail.
Farmers said once the leaves are plucked, it will be graded. Once it is graded, the leaves will be strung from the sticks in order to make it ready for curing in the barn.
Describing how the curing is done, CTs Galewela Area Manager Piyal Jayasekara said that when the colour is changed from green to yellow, the leaf has to be in live condition, so they use a standard temperature for curing.
He said that chemicals, fire or flame is not connected with the leaf and the heat will be sent through flue pipes. It was noted that curing has four stages, once it’s stacked inside the barn.
“The whole process takes five days - 120 hours, once you start curing you cannot stop. So with automation, job has become easy, otherwise for every barn you need at least two people,” he said.
It was noted that wood is not used for tobacco curing and barn operations are 100 percent paddy husk fuelled.
Once the curing is done, the next step is untying and stacking the leaf in warehouses to soften. After that, the second grading would be done and the leaves will be labelled as their grade. Finally, it will be delivered to CTC on specified dates.
Gunatilaka said that tobacco will be priced according to the quality, considering the colour, texture and plant position, adding that they have eight grades.
“What they (farmers) do is, based on three parameters, for example, upper plant position with bright grade and heavy body, we give a better price,” he said.
All in all, Sri Lanka’s tobacco industry is currently in an interesting junction. The government is trying to slap higher taxes on cigarettes and CTC. The monopoly player with rights to manufacture, distribute and sale of cigarettes is indicating that with such higher taxes its business will be pushed into a precarious position.
Interestingly, there is a near-unregulated tobacco industry operating in Sri Lanka through the cottage beedi industry, which comprises a sizeable portion of the country’s tobacco market. The beedi manufacturers are said to be importing almost all of their raw materials for their products paying only the import taxes, which were hiked by the last budget, but was brought down again as amid beedi manufacturers lobbying the government.