Mirror Business received the following letter from former Tea Exporters’ Association (TEA) Chairman Rohan Fernando in response to the article titled ‘If government needs a backbone, TEA needs a brain’, authored by Sri Lanka Tea Board Chairman Rohan Pethiyagoda that appeared yesterday.
I am privy to the letter sent to the chairman of the TEA, where I have been singled out to attribute most of the statements which appeared in the newspapers on the recent press briefing of the TEA. Whilst I take responsibility for some of the content reported in the press, it is neither correct nor ethical to attribute a majority of the statements as well as go back in time to further lambaste me with vengeance.
The issues highlighted in your eloquently written long letter beg for an answer from me, personally. The TEA chairman may respond or call for a press briefing to clear some of the contentious issues brought out by you related to past issues, delays in the P&M campaign, abolishing of taxes and levies, etc.
It takes me back to the time when I served on the SLTB board representing the TEA and must kindly request you to scrutinize some of the board papers where I have requested to state my objections to some of the projects started without a feasibility study. The previous Secretary, who served on the Board, Mihindukulasooriya, will vouch for my vociferous objections at that time purely to save the funds of the exporters being wasted on projects and sponsorships not falling within the authority defined in the government gazette.
In recent times, when you chaired the meetings of the board, I continued to express my opinion without fear or favour and you cannot deny that. I still have the respect for you for allowing difference of opinion to be expressed in crucial matters to make good decisions and also to consult the TEA opinion regularly. The latter seems to be lacking nowadays, perhaps you are very busy and or in full control and does not require direct interaction with a main stakeholder apart from Board meetings.
I take responsibility for supporting the establishment of the Tea Hub, which has been argued and suggested even from the time of the late Gamini Dissanayake, a leader par excellence, when liberal policies in tea exports prevailed. We have fought for the greater good of our beleaguered nation taken down the tube by successive governments after D.S. Senanayake, Sir John Kotelawala and Dudley Senanayake, to impress upon the leadership to take far-reaching strategic decisions for the nation without yielding to narrow political mindset.
A country, which had the best economic model in Asia and a healthy balance in reserves even to lend money to the Crown just after independence, is now the beggar of Asia as revealed by none other than the prime minister. Then what more are we talking about integrity and strong will to take decisions?
The move to segregate tea production and tea exports is nothing new. Since the nationalisation of the tea estates, the exporters’ woes on external trade could not be resolved through the plantation ministry. It is logical that tea exports or for that matter all exports must be handled through the external trade ministry for greater linkage of markets for our export commodities. It is no disrespect to the plantations minister but an imperative policy shift as we are an externally driven economy and exports prime our balance of payments.
The research on the development of the tea export industry was initiated by the tea exporters several years ago when a proposal was presented for the budget to recognise ‘brand building’ as opposed to mere value addition. The industry, which was struggling to turnover US $ 750 million got a boost from the fresh incentives proposed at that budget and within two years crossed the US $ 1 billion in export proceeds. Hasitha de Alwis assisted the TEA through the NCE to make the presentation to the then Finance Minister Dr. Amunugama. The Tea Board Chairman was Niraj de Mel. This I state with confidence so that you can check the SLTB archives to learn the resurgence of the tea export industry, which was suppressed by a few people with vested interest, vehemently discouraging in open forums, the branding option as a means to expand tea exports. You will then know what TEA has been doing and what the other self-appointed saviours of the tea industry contributed other than taking the entire tea promotion budget as a grant to build one brand, through an act of nepotism.
Since then, the TEA, as a formidable organisation, continued to enhance the outlook for the tea export industry from a global point of view. Several initiatives were made using the money collected from the exporter members. The first research project to assess the potential for value addition through branding and supporting liberalisation of the tea export industry was undertaken by the Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) under the late Dr. Saman Kelegama. You should have a copy of this too at the SLTB.
We also conducted a workshop/forum involving all stakeholders to come up with suggestions. You would recall attending this forum together with the plantation minister and Dr. Indrajit Coomaraswamy. The document on this was presented to the SLTB and minister and it beats me to hear that the TEA has never submitted a feasibility for the Tea HUB or Tea Nation concept. Don’t you think this should have been an initiative of the SLTB or Plantations Ministry as a national economic strategy and not the TEA deliberating alone to chart the course for
On the other hand, have any of the detractors of the liberalisation of tea come up with a guaranteed programme to meet the global marketplace during price fluctuations, without burdening the tax rupees?
With regard to the story in the press on the backbone, words can be twisted and words can be coined but the fact I and some of the members present extolled is the government’s inability and lacking in direction to take decisions, especially when the proposal for the liberalisation of the tea export industry was passed in two consecutive budgets.
The last attempt by the finance minister was scuttled by appointing a totally lopsided committee to appease one exporter backed by plantation interests.
It was pathetically myself against all (numbering 10) with one person abstaining due to his role as Chairman of CTTA, the umbrella organisation for all that’s tea. You are aware that “A camel is a horse designed by a committee” and I strongly objected to Chairman Rafeek on the lopsidedness of the committee and wasting our time when the result was very much predetermined to satisfy a party indulging in political influence. So, it is the frustration of a vast majority of exporters that was articulated by the press and not through a press release. Even though, if you could criticize the government for lackadaisical attitude in decision-making as reported in the recent press, why can’t we, as non-subservient and independent persons, strike a strong signal for course correction?
Today the entire country is aware of the non-performance and corruption taking place. I, as a person who was fully involved in the change we brought in 2014, am much disappointed today. I openly criticized the wrong decisions even during the last regime getting the wrath of the then powerful Finance Secretary P.B. Jayasundera.
I, as Chairman, did continue to express the opinion of the TEA without fear but with full concurrence of the Ex-Co and membership of the TEA.
We, the TEA and the TEA alone protected the P&M funds being sucked into balancing the budget by confronting the finance minister immediately after the first budget. What I express now as a former Chairman is not necessarily the consulted opinion of the TEA and I am open for correction if erred.
I know you will stay on as Chairman or have the luxury of calling it a day but we, who are passionately involved and toiled all our lives in the tea industry, have to continue until the next gen. It is our bounden duty to ensure no harm or disruption will come upon due to selfish political decisions
I am writing this not with malice but to put the record straight, so that you know the hard facts and will have the wisdom to separate myth from truth. We can always meet over a cup of steaming tea to deliberate further if so desired.