Tea industry in crisis

It was the day the suicide bomber struck at the army headquarters that Dr Ziyard Mohamed, harried Director of the Tea Research Institute (TRI) returned to the country along with colleagues after a successful visit to Japan convincing the authorities to lift an unofficial ban on Ceylon Tea imports over contamination issues.

The tea expert believes the crisis over the attack on the army commander shocked the country and shifted attention from possible plans to arrest him on arrival. “Thus I was arrested only a few days later,” he said recalling a rare case where one of two persons traveling overseas from the same organization and with the same approval was arrested for misappropriation of funds taken for the trip. If that is not victimization; what is?

Subsequently all charges against Dr. Mohamed were dropped and the President ordered his re-instatement on Friday as our story in this section shows. His trip had been approved by the TRI board but we hear that some directors were ‘gunning’ for him and waited till he was away to bring in flimsy charges.

Ironically it was the TRI director’s efforts, backed by the Sri Lankan team, in Japan through the presentation of trials and documents to show Ceylon Tea was clean as a whistle that has cleared the way for Japanese buyers to resume purchases in Colombo from May 29 onwards.

But what credit does Dr Mohamed get for fighting for the industry and country? Arrested by police and being sacked from his job. Ever since his arrest, that sent shockwaves across the industry, many industry specialists have rung up newspapers and urged that we take up the issue and fight for the unjust actions.

Dr. Mohamed’s version of events is explained in our story while officials earlier spoke on the misappropriation of funds or leaving the country without proper authorization. If for a moment we are to forget all that: how does the Ministry secretary then explain sacking only Dr Mohamed when another TRI officer went on the same trip and both their names were sent at the same time for approval, and no action was brought against the latter? Some one has to do some explaining here; the minister, if not the secretary!

We hope justice and saner counsel will prevail and the TRI director restored in his position. There are a few state institutions in the tea sector that are and have been working well and supporting a totally private-sector driven industry.
It is the TRI and the Tea Board (in patches over the year but not now) that have provided that support to Sri Lanka’s main commodity export. Victimizing officials in these institutions when they are doing a good job is the last thing the authorities should do. Punish people indeed if they have violated a law or state regulation but now that a Court has cleared the TRI director of all charges, why penalize him any further?

Our other stories today also discuss another tea industry problem - the role of the Tea Association of Sri Lanka (TASL) and its status now.

The association has not been able to perform its role as envisaged and that after ADB funding through the state ends in 2008, the TASL may automatically go into oblivion.

What a sad state of affairs but in this case it’s not the state that is entirely at fault. The problem is that the private sector stakeholders haven’t been able to reach a consensus on any of the issues pertaining to its mandate and thus another white elephant- this time a private-sector driven body has emerged.

The money doled out for the running of the TASL (Rs 21 million so far) comes from an ADB loan which someone has to pay. Again a case of the people having to pay for an experiment that hasn’t worked because private stakeholders were simply selfish and looked for short term gains instead of putting the country and the industry first.

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