12,500 youth to get ‘unused’ plantation landsView(s):
By Bandula Sirimanna
Keeping plantation companies in the dark, the Sri Lankan government this week finalised plans to acquire 25,000 acres of unused estate land and distribute it among youths for ‘productive agricultural purposes’ under the 2013 budget proposal.
A decision to distribute two acre blocks of land each in plantations among 12,500 unemployed youth was been taken at a top level meeting on Monday held at the Finance Ministry with the participation of Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa, Treasury Secretary Dr. P.B. Jayasundera, Plantation Industries Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe and several senior officials.
President of the Planters Association of Ceylon Lalith Obeysekera told the Business Times that the companies have not been invited for any meeting with the Government and were unaware about final plans to acquire unutilised estate land. He said even though they attended a meeting chaired by Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe this week on some other issues, this matter was not discussed.
The Treasury has agreed to release Rs. 100 million to be given as loans for selected youth to develop the land along with plants and fertilizer, and the land will be distributed to them on a 30-year lease, government officials said.
Mr Obeysekera noted that plantation companies had sought clarification from the Ministry of Plantation Industries on modalities of the acquisition of estate land, when this proposal was made in the 2013 budget in November 2012. But there has been no response.
He said that most of the plantation companies have utilised estate land to its maximum.
The identified land will be re-allocated to achieve impact improved production and higher productivity levels in the plantations industry in the long term, a senior Finance Ministry official disclosed.
A plantation industry expert said the state move will not bring any productive results as the whole programme is politicised.
These lands will be distributed among party supporters without any knowledge on plantation industry and it will bring disastrous results, he predicted.
Several plantation companies complained that the biggest problem in using land for re-planting tea in their estate lands was a labour shortage.
In some instances plantation workers worked only for 10 to 20 days per month as they get sufficient wages following the recent wage hike, another reason why some land was being unutilized.
Diversification by plantation companies into non-traditional areas such as palm oil cultivation and processing is showing good results, company officials said.
Namunukula, Kegalle and Kotagala plantations have posted sustainable earnings despite the volatility in the tea sector as they have mixed crops such as rubber or palm oil. Horana Plantations continued accelerating its rubber replanting programme with 116 hectares planted on its estates with 25 hectares of tea also replanted.
The company has fully utilised the land by cultivating supplementary crops and palm oil, an official said.
Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena said unutilised lands under plantation companies have led to a decrease in tea, rubber and coconut production.
“Most of the Colombo-based plantation company directors are only interested in profits and other perks which run into millions of rupees a month and they have allowed estate land to become safe havens for wild animals,” he added. Justifying the government’s decision, the Minister said that palm cultivation creates environmental hazards. Tea, rubber, coconut and cocoa cultivations should be stepped up to ensure a better future for the country, he added. The Sri Lankan plantation sector is a key sector in the economy, contributing 18 per cent of the national export revenue.
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