Following is the full speech delivered by
Sri Lanka Tea Board Chairman Rohan Pethiyagoda at the 163rd annual general meeting of the Planters’ Association of Ceylon, held recently.
Chairman, members of the committee, ladies and gentleman, Malin said that my appointment hinted at nepotism; he is wrong, it is just nepotism plain and simple. That being said, I have to lay to rest this canard that I’m Dr. Rohan Pethiyagoda. I need to tear off my whiskers and inform you that I don’t espouse a PhD.
I have been offered an honorary PhD on two occasions and both times I declined because I think these things have to be earned and not given to people free of charge. But there was a time when I did want an honorary qualification and that was in 1972 when I crashed my O/Ls. That would have helped save me a whole year.
Before I get started I want to add a little to what Sunil said about this wonderful man, Malin Goonetileke, not just because he said nice things about me but also because I know for a fact the huge contribution he has made at every single level from the plantations to the ministry. It has been a career of committed service and it has been my personal pleasure to work with him.
Malin is a straight talker and we’ve achieved a lot together. I am looking forward with some trepidation to his replacement because Lalith is an even straighter talker and rarely hides his sentiments in his discussions with us. Sunil has also been a pleasure to work with this last year.
Every time I have a dispute with him, someone always points out that he is not a tea man but a rubber man, but even so I have never seen anything elastic about him. But honestly he’s been a member of my board for the last year and it has been a pleasure to work with him. It’s nice because unlike in many other branches of the government, we can have some really honest conversations.
Not just because I am the son and grandson of tea planters – my grandfather started planting a hundred years ago in 1917 – not just for that reason, I just want to say that in an environment where you come in for so much criticism at so many levels, I am an unstinting admirer of the regional plantation companies (RPCs).
The RPCs have however become a whipping boy for politicians. You rarely hear a kind word said about you from amongst politicians at every level. The problem you have however is that you are lease holders and you are therefore in some way beholden to the government for the continuation of your business. That is a very unfair model and it is sad that no one really questions it.
We often hear that the RPCs are too big but your average size is just 3,500 hectares which is an area of 7 x 5 kilometres as a rectangle, which is certainly not an excessive amount of land to manage. I don’t think any further fragmentation is really justified. I certainly don’t agree that the attrition, which we have seen of your land, which have been acquired for other purposes, without nearly enough consideration being given. Economies of scale and the fact that that 20 is still a lot of diversity means that in an environment, where the management capacity, especially at the senior levels, is limited, we need to be very thoughtful if we are looking at any substantial changes in the model that now exists.
Need for new plantation society
But the points that I wanted to raise with you this evening are slightly at divergence from this because many of you have heard me talking about plantation issues and rather than riding the same war horse, I want to share with you some thoughts that I have had as someone who has been very closely related with your industry for the whole of my life.
Firstly, I feel that we need a new plantation society. You have 200,000 labour residents on your estates and their families – almost one million people – for whom you provide housing, healthcare, education and nutrition. And though I know that many of you will disagree with what I’m about to say, I think the thing that we have failed to give your employees and their families is freedom.
The plantation workers remain yet to become full citizens in the meaningful sense of citizenship of Sri Lanka. We have failed to help them integrate with the rest of society. And there are reasons for this; it’s not your fault. It is part of the legacy that you inherited from colonial times, 19th century Sri Lanka, in which transportation was not easy and it was convenient to have your labour resident at their place of work.
But if you think about it as a socio-economic model, this is an anomaly. People don’t normally live in their workplace unless there is a really good reason to do so and as a result, plantation workers have found it very difficult to become normal members of society. I’m going to explain what I mean by that: as I drive up to Agarapathana – which I do about once a month – I drive through Ginigathena, Watawala, Hatton, Thalawakela, Bindula, Agarapathana and so on. All those townships have not changed one bit in the 60 years I have been on this planet. They have not been able to expand and they still remain as slum towns. They dump their garbage on your land, on the roadside; even as they expand in population, they can’t expand in the area because they remain tiny islands of humanity in this vast ocean of tea.
No government has found the political will to allow these townships to develop into modern, urban units. The rightful place of plantation workers is in towns, not estates. I can’t see any valid reason as to why people can’t commute to work. You have good roads or at least, you had good roads until the Pradeshiya Sabhas came into play. We need to think that in the future, the model we have today will not persist. Hence, it is better to make that transition peacefully and attract people to work in the estates from a diversity of backgrounds rather than look at the principle of indentured labour, which we inherited from our colonial masters. It cannot happen overnight but I think it has to happen at some point.
Look at the social transformation that the apparel industry caused in Sri Lanka. When President Premadasa started this in 1992 and started establishing garment factories in the free trade zones and around the country, there was a lot of scepticism. People of my age and older will remember at the time that this plan of his was bound to fail. And as an economic model, it has of course been successful but I think as important is that it has been successful as a social mode.
You will remember that the apparel industry has for the longest time, allowed girls, women from villages to move into an industrial environment. They became the Employees’ Provident Fund (EPF) payers. They became taxpayers. They became fully-integrated members of Sri Lankan society. They became citizens. And what accompanied that empowerment of women was not just economic but also social.
The traditional model, where a girl at 18 in the village one day had her parents bring a boy for her to marry, has now gone. These girls are matchmaking for themselves. They are doing new things that they hadn’t or weren’t able to do before. A social transformation has taken place; that is very beautiful.
I think the tea industry is going to see such an emancipation of estate workers in the near future. If it doesn’t, I don’t think that you will be able to say that your plantation industry is truly part of the modern economy. The unions and politicians will not do this. They won’t because it pays unions to have members. Because it pays unions to have members and fees and it pays politicians to have workers who will vote on block with unions who are aligned to politicians and parties.
The estate labour has become captive into an economy, a social system and into a polity, which they have very little control of and which does very little for them. As a result, they have suffered a huge number of social consequences. All of you know the high levels of alcoholism in the estates. Why do they spend all of their money on alcohol? It’s because there is nothing that they can do with their earnings.
The most fundamental thing that any of us wants to leave to our children is a piece of land, a house, some real estate. Yet, in the whole of the plantation sector, there is no land to be had. If you can’t buy a piece of land, if you can’t save to buy a piece of land and build a small house, what is there to leave to your children?
They remain eternal tenants rather like the surfs of the 19th century. They cannot become full citizens unless they have an opportunity to own their own land. I’m not saying that this land must come from your estates. What I’m saying is that we need to think about expanding the townships in the plantation areas into a way that becomes meaningful for them.
The result of the social strife that exists on the plantations is that young people especially see no future in the plantation industry. You see this for yourself. Even if you increase salaries, they see a lack of respectability in working in the plantations and therefore you lose some of the best talent you have. I just want to give you a few examples, which may seem a little embarrassing but as a scientist, something I don’t shirk from is embarrassment.
A few years ago, a group of five doctors, who are specialists in sexually transmitted disease, did a survey of youth of both sexes in the Nuwara Eliya District -- 18-24 -- and they asked them all about their sexual behaviour.
A few points I noted from that, merely to illustrate what it means to be a young person growing up in a plantation workers’ environment. One in every 10 of those children claimed to be sexually abused by an older person before the age of 10.
Ten percent of plantation workers were child sex victims by the age of 10. The mean age of sexual debut was at the age of 13. How would you feel if your daughter was in that situation?
Eighty six percent of men surveyed had had a homosexual encounter. Seventeen percent of girls had an illegal abortion. Of course there is no legal abortion in Sri Lanka; the cabinet discussed these only a few weeks ago and there are a few powerful constituencies in Sri Lanka that are against it.
But think of the trauma that 17 percent of plantation girls have to go through and the social stigma that attaches. Only 3 percent of these 18-24-year-olds – and despite 90 percent having made it to O/L education – only 3 percent had ever heard of sexually transmitted diseases.
The most astonishing thing for me was that of the 17 percent of girls who had an abortion, 85 percent had never heard of a condom. They had no idea what a condom is and what surprised me even more was that 50 percent of boys also had no idea what a condom is.
The point I’m trying to make is that the plantation worker’s household is not like yours or mine. It is one in which children are exploited, where young girls are often relegated to the kitchen where they are breathing smoke. And even though you intervened brilliantly at so many levels – of health education, nutrition and child care, there is still a lot that you cannot do merely because these are isolated communities that are not fully integrated into an urban environment, where people are exchanging information. If 85 percent of 18-24-year-olds have not heard of a condom, it means that they have not been spending enough time in a town.
The basic problem we have here is not your fault; it is the fault of our state because as we all know land reform in the 1970s was necessary but the way in which we did land reform in the 1970s was a disaster because we took all the land from a small number of landowners – 25 percent of them were foreign even though we maintain this picture that it was mostly foreign-owned land – we took it from a multiplicity of land owners and vested it all in a single landowner, the government.
That is not land reform, that is confiscation and then did we plan the way in which this land should be distributed? No, we didn’t. Instead, the government tried to run all the land and we had the Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB) and SPCS and they ran the plantations into the ground.
For 20 years this attrition went on until you, the RPCs, came along, finding the plantations in billions of rupees in debt, the government transferred that into equity and you have since then recovered this industry into a state where it is once more making profits. You deserve a very hearty pat on the back and that is why I said I admire what the RPCs have done.
The fact is that the mistakes made by the government then were not unique. We keep making similar policy mistakes even now. The government encourages you to plant firewood and then discourages you from harvesting it. Even wood lots that you have planted for timber cannot be harvested. This is stupidity simply because the whole idea of forestry is that you harvest it.
If you plant a crop, you have to have the right to harvest it. In the 1970s many of your factories owned micro hydro plants, you were energy self-sufficient. The government said, ‘Oh we’re generating too much electricity now so shut down your micro-hydros and connect yourselves to the grid.’ What was the upshot of that? Energy prices have gone up significantly since then.
Your leases in 1994 were restricted to 53 years. That is a very short time in the span of a tea bush. It is basically slightly more than the life of a tea bush. What is the incentive with a 50-year lease to keep replanting? In that regard, it is astonishing that you kept replanting. When you lease someone else’s house, you usually don’t paint the walls and fix the roof. You did. Three percent annual average replanting rate is three times that of the rest of the tea industry. The private landholdings and smallholders are replanting at a rate of 1.2 percent per annum. That is an 80-year cycle; a tea bush isn’t much good after 80 years.
But you have been replanting at a 33-year cycle, which is sustainable, despite the cost, the chairman said. Then two years ago, we banned glyphosate. Who should have taken that decision? We have a registrar of pesticides; we have a fertilizer secretariat; we have a medical research institute and a tea research institute. Nobody was consulted. Someone woke up one morning and said, ‘Oo let’s ban glyphosate’ and to this day, there is nobody who is accountable for that decision.
Poholiyadde noted that the minister has been running up and down; there were three cabinet papers submitted but you cannot get to the point to where anyone will look you in the eye and tell you why this has been banned despite being fully aware of the cost to the tea industry and to the economy. The only reason it isn’t being shouted about very much now is because the prices have been buoyant.
And then we have the response to climate change, another point that you highlighted. Maskeliya, Ginigathena, Watawala have half as much rainfall as it had 10 years ago. Nuwara Eliya is now in Sri Lanka’s dry zone, receiving less than 2,000 mm of rainfall and has done for about the past decade.
If you’re going to continue planting tea in these areas, you will need to think very carefully about how it is going to be sustainable and how we are going to find ways of making it sustainable. That is the job of the Tea Research Institute (TRI). But do you know what the budget of the TRI is for this whole year? Rs.90 million.
That’s all they have available for research. Many of you have a couple of cars that are worth that much and so naturally the research is not happening. You need new cultivars, new soil management and shade regimens and the possibilities of irrigation and none of these things are happening.
When the government banned glyphosate, one would have thought that you would have put money into the TRI and told them to find some alternatives. Of course they told the TRI to find alternatives but nobody gave them any money to do it, so it’s not happening.
What is the consequence? Many plantation owners have started using alternatives that are not authorized. These are now coming up in various importing countries.
Last month we had Diuron discovered in Germany in excessive quantities; MCPA has been a problem in Japan. Sooner or later this is going to lead to importing countries putting restrictions on Sri Lankan tea imports and this is a serious problem but I cannot wake up this government to think seriously about it. Goodness knows we have tried.
So despite all these handicaps, despite being hobbled at every stage in your 20-year history as RPCs, you’ve done a fantastic job to bring the industry to where it is today and for that you deserve the nation’s gratitude and my thanks, which you have. Of course this year you’ve been rewarded and for the whole of this year we’ve seen that our average FOB export price has for the first time in history been in excess of US $ 5.00 so profits have been good, all of you have been paying back your debts and come Christmas, I’m sure all of you have health bonuses handed out. At least I would hope so.
My job doesn’t get me a bonus, so the members of the planting community, all I have for you is admiration. I don’t often say this and you know I’m a straight talker, but you have my congratulations, my thanks and my best wishes for the coming year.