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Plantation crisis and the challenges ahead: Over to you Mr. Minister

11 September 2015 07:33 am - 0     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}


The presidential election is over. It was followed by the parliamentary elections and a new Parliament was elected. For the plantations, this should mean changes for better. Former Plantations Minister Lakshman Kiriella will assume office in a new ministry. We have to thank him for his leadership in initiating action to transform the plantation industry when he was the Minister.

The new Minister Naveen Dissanayake is no stranger to Ceylon Planters’ Society as he hails from an ancestral family in the Central Hill Country and has ‘planting’ in his blood. Therefore, it is our duty to analyse the gaps in the industry and submit our evidences for his fair judgement and execution. In this endeavour, let’s scan the environment first. 

Political situation
The political situation is getting stabilized in the country and law and order are falling in place like never before. Discipline is the first sign of upward trend in development. Political influence should never be allowed to creep into plantation management. The staff and workforce should be aware of this. Planters themselves must be confident that they should act according to the orders given by their higher authorities only and they will not be subjected to political interference as before.

Environmental issues
It is our view that the ministry must have a separate unit to address the environmental issues. Climate change and global warming have come to stay. The time is most opportune to develop a new agricultural map as the existing maps are outdated. This has to be done with the help of the Central Environmental Authority (CEA). It is shocking to observe that there is no unit to monitor the environmental impacts in large-scale plantations, which are situated mostly on the Central Hills that give the ‘life blood’ (safe and pure drinking water) to most parts of the country. 

Social reforms
Many researches undertaken in the past show the dire need for social reforms. Human resource management (HRM) concepts can address these issues and every Regional Plantations Company (RPC) must have a qualified HRM manager at the decision-making level. The National Institute of Plantations Management (NIPM) should be transformed as the government body to provide management services such as consultancies and training to plantations as per the NIPM Act. The Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT) may be empowered to improve the quality of living of the estate population.  
We think that only Crop Science graduates with required attributes be allowed to get into managerial vacancies in the plantation industry. They should be given advance management training (before absorbing them to corporate management) in countries such as Singapore and the UK. At present, many employees in the majority of companies are not given any kind of training. This has caused a major drawback as the corporate executives do not concentrate adequately on the growth of company business. They neither have the knowledge nor the skill. 

Retirement age of planters
Meanwhile, the inflation factor must also be considered in wage negotiations, i.e., the retiring age of the planters. The retirement age agreed upon with the estate staff and the workers is 60 years but the planters have to retire at the age of 55 and go on annual contracts up to 60. Some RPCs and government organisations such as Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation (SLSPC) and Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB) allow planters to continue till 60 without a break in service. This is a discrimination of labour. Planters are not allowed to continue till 60 because they do not have the bargaining power as the total membership stands at 1400, whereas, the estate staff is 14,000 and the other employees (direct and indirect) amount to 1.2 million. 

Technical contribution
Both information technology (IT) and information communication technology (ICT) can bring down the cost of production. A different business model for this industry is necessary and should have been addressed about 40 years ago.

Economical practices
Adding value, owning the entire value chain and not exporting raw materials should be the government policy. Crop diversification must also be encouraged. 

Legal and security
The security situation in the plantation sector continues to deteriorate. There were instances where labourers and union officials became a law unto themselves. Some actions were taken to prevent any future breakdown of management and its inevitable effect on production. But stricter laws are necessary to have law and order in estates.

Meanwhile, we wish to look ahead to the future. We see that the plantations are (at least in the foreseeable future) to be the mainstay of our economy. Thus, we hope that much attention, more than that has been given so far, is given to the development of the plantation industry. We trust that the past projects of development should be studied thoroughly and lapses of the past be emphasized, not to pin blame on individuals or associations, but to make certain that we avoid such mistakes in the future.

We also anticipate that replanting and large-scale infilling are given their rightful place to improve production. We also hope that not only tea, rubber and coconut but other important crops (some of which can be inter-cropped with tea, rubber and coconut), for example, cocoa, pepper, cloves, nutmeg, cardamom and even fodder grass, are also given their due place in the correct agro climatic areas. We advocate very strongly that maximum usage of all land should be done.

Prosperity and future of plantation industry
Our society faced many problems in the past. As a result, we have two main concerns.
  •     The prosperity and future of the plantation industry.
  •     Securing of personnel and professional interests of the planters and wellbeing of the staff and labourers who work with them.
Let us delve into these aspects a little further.
The Ceylon Planter’s Society strongly advocates that an authority of eminent and competent personnel should be drawn from every sector to be formed as a national policymaking body to formulate a lasting national plan and monitor same for production and marketing of each crop sector of the plantation industry. We emphasize the words ‘eminent’ and ‘competent’, in order that these personnel could continue to serve under any government in the interest of the country.
The companies should be given a free hand to manage their plantations and they should be monitored by the national planning body on policy matters and targets.
I draw the words of the late General Ranjan Wijeratna mentioned in his address at the Annual General Meeting of 1965: “Our fortunes are and will for many years to come, be dependent on the prosperity and wellbeing of the plantation industries.”
How true these words were in 1965 and how true these words are even today.
Privatization of management
Although the basic concept of privatization was to benefit the country, it may be timely to assess the results so far achieved. Low productivity in any area of economic activity is unhealthy for any country, particularly for a developing country. Sri Lanka should reassess the position to ensure that the plantation industry is set on the right path, so as to ensure that agricultural commodities, the base of the national economy can remain competitive in the world market.

Meanwhile, Mr. Minister, I draw your attention to a statement made by your late father Minister Gamini Dissanayaka at one of our Annual General Meetings when he was the Minister of Plantations: “I mentioned during the speech at the Professional Association that we have not made a single dent in the colonial economy that we inherited. In fact, most of the mail that I have received in Sinhala and English refer to this aspect of a social vision. The fact is that we have not made a single dent in our or even a slight dent in our colonial economy and what stands out like a sore thumb in the colonial economy is the plantation sector.”
Thus, it is the time to take stock of the situation. For more than a century the lands were owned and managed by foreigners and they managed well and they managed to take back the profit too. But what has happened today? The whole industry is facing a crisis.
I think the time has now come for all concerned with the industry to rally round and get it out of the rut that it has got into. We know that you alone cannot do this. The state, Regional Companies, planters, staff, the estate workers and the trade unionists must get together hand in hand and pull the industry out of this pathetic state. Thus, we look forward to a better future.
Let us wish the newly appointed minister all the best and good luck in his future endeavours! 
(Lalin I. De Silva is the former Editor of Ceylon Planter’s Society Bulletin)

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