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Whither our state-managed tea plantations

12 October 2015 06:30 pm - 1     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

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By S. K. Seneviratne
This article does not intend to comment on the parlous condition of our state-managed tea plantations. Suffice it to say that these valuable assets have become a tremendous strain on our economy, mostly due to political interference and gross mismanagement.

Here, I have made some suggestions to resurrect these national resources are made, in the hope the government will take these ideas seriously and do something constructive about these valuable assets.

1. Amalgamate the State Plantations Corporation, Janatha Estates Development Board and Elkaduwa Plantations. Have one Chairman and one Board of Directors to serve all three organizations.

Apart from the savings that would accrue by having only one board, the co-ordination and interaction between these three agricultural organizations would greatly benefit the administration and management of these enterprises.

The three organizations to be in the same premises. A further saving, rather than having three separate buildings.

2. The Chairman must be a competent agriculturist, knowledgeable, committed and an honest person. The same applies to the composition of the board, which, including the usual ministerial representatives, must include experienced planters, an accountant, a person knowledgeable in spice and other crops; generally, well reputed persons involved with agriculture. The Chairman and the board must be committed to restoring these lands to their potential.

3. Efficient, knowledgeable and committed General Managers, to each of the three organizations, will head the administration, reporting to the Chairman.
Deputy General Managers to monitor 10 - 15 plantations in each of the three organizations, assisted by an office assistant to each such group of plantations. The DGMM will report to their respective General Managers.

Deputy General Managers (Finance) for each of the three organizations, with an Accounts Assistant for each of the organizations.

A Deputy General Manager to handle produce marketing with an assistant.

Obviously, more staff will be required to run an efficient head office, but this must be cut down to the barest minimum.

I believe the three organizations have their respective regional offices. Would suggest each of these offices be headed by a Group Operations Manager, who must be a hands-on experienced planter, with an above average plantation management record. 

He must reside in the region and make regular visits to each plantation, guide managers and ensure all programs drawn up are carried out as required, standards maintained and costs controlled. He will not undermine the authority of the plantation manager in any way, nor be involved in the day to day activities of the plantation.

4.All plantations to be computerized and be linked to the Head Office. Plantations will, on a daily basis, send details of weight of green leaf harvested, number of harvesters used, their green leaf weight averages, number of other workers employed under the various items of work, weight of made tea, details of graded tea, packed invoice details, etc.

The main purpose must be to have the barest minimum of staff serving the head office to bring down expenditure. Such savings could then be utilized on plantations for better maintenance and development. It is prudent to remember that plantations were not created to serve head offices, but rather such offices were created to serve plantations. The people who matter must surely get their priorities right if they are serious about managing these national properties to be the assets they should be.

5.Most plantations do not have survey plans. This is a basic requirement, more especially due to large scale encroachments, acquisitions, etc. that took place following nationalization of plantations.

Detailed survey plans are vital for proper and effective management, where cultivated and cultivable areas are accurately surveyed. Planning a management program, covering fertilizer usage, labour deployment, calculation of yields, etc. would be of no value if cultivated extents are not accurate and would lead to misleading conclusions and, more seriously, wasted resources, especially of funds.

Even an error of 5 percent on the extent of a plantation will result in the annual crop being overstated and also result in excess fertilizer being used.
I would suggest an electronic survey with GPS control be done. Apart from its accuracy, results from as electronic survey are made available in analogue (survey plan) and digital (on a CD) formats.

While the survey is being done, it would greatly facilitate field operations if the better areas of tea are identified and, where possible, such areas be divided in to fields of 10 ha. each. Unsuitable areas of tea, including weak, wind-blown, rocky, steep areas, and abandoned areas must also be identified and their extents shown in the survey plan.

A proper program of development could then be drawn for the better fields of tea, and plans for alternate crops in the other areas may also be made.

6. Plantation staff - The most vital component. Managers must be the best of school leavers, with leadership qualities. Given the extremely poor results of state managed tea plantations, it may be necessary to ascertain the suitability and quality of its plantation managers, perhaps by calling for explanation for poor performance of their charges or through a written and oral examination to ascertain their knowledge in plantation management and their suitability for such managerial positions.

The success or failure of managing a plantation depends so much on the ability, commitment and honesty of the manager, who must lead by example.
This also applies to Field, Factory and Office staff. No political appointments, but such appointments made entirely on suitability, commitment and merit.
Politics and political appointments have been the bane of state properties that have reduced these once prosperous plantations to the parlous condition they are now in.

7. Cultivation Practices - The better, suitable areas for cultivation of tea must be developed, following good agricultural practices, including the filling of vacant areas, which should, in a few years obtain yields of over 1,700 to 2,500 kg./ha.

Having ascertained type of soils, areas not suitable for cultivation of high yielding tea, may be cultivated with spice crops, fruit crops, vegetables, etc. Coconut may also be grown, taking advantage of space between trees, to grow a variety of useful crops.

State managed plantations must take advantage of modem techniques in cultivation practices now available, including poly tunnels, etc. Obtaining expert advice from Israeli agronomists in optimizing land use would certainly be useful.

8. Tea factories - Reduce the number of factories. Depending on crop intakes, including potential for purchasing outsiders green leaf and distance to plantations, one or two central factories may be built or an existing factory be modernized. These should be state of the art factories, so equipped to produce the best of teas. One or two central factories will make for consistent quality of teas made.

Transport of leaf from “feeder” plantations must be in lorries / tractors equipped with frames to carry leaf in plastic crates, so as to arrive fresh and undamaged at the central factory.

9. Workers - With a growing shortage of workers on plantations, the confining of tea cultivation to only the better areas, will considerably reduce the demand of workers to this highly human intensive industry.

It will also thereby provide sufficient workers for the cultivation of other crops, which would not be as human intensive as tea.

To ease the burden of transporting cash to plantations for labour pay each month and, perhaps, to also reduce abuse and mishandling, would it be possible to open bank savings accounts for each worker and their wages credited to their respective bank accounts? There may be some resistance at the beginning, but when a few prudent families experience the benefits of such an account, others may follow. Should this be done, it would also contribute to the national economy.

These are only a very few ideas for the better management of our state plantations and are made in the hope that it will attract the attention of the people who matter.

(The writer is the immediate past Secretary General of Planters’ Association of Ceylon)
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  Comments - 1

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  • sacre blieu Thursday, 15 October 2015 09:58 AM

    Most ,if not all, the state plantations ran at a loss mainly due to the corruption that followed along with political interference. Now, the Minster of Plantation Industry is asking the government Rs. 1Bn. to prop up the auction price by buying tea. This could be an invitation to another corrupt issue, as we see that the guaranteed price to small holders for green leaf has been converted to a fraud, with both the factory owners and the officials of the Tea Board in connivance. Most price support mechanisms by the government ends up as a fiasco and the corrupt get away. A certain ministers father when a official in a state plantation management company also , among the many, was corrupt.


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