This is with reference to an article written by Dr. C. S. Weeraratna on the rubber sector which appeared in the Sunday Times recently. Dr. Weeraratna has indicated a number of factors which have contributed towards the downfall of the rubber sector. Among these is the ineffective extension staff. According to Dr. Weeraratna, the number [...]

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Complexities in the rubber farming sector


This is with reference to an article written by Dr. C. S. Weeraratna on the rubber sector which appeared in the Sunday Times recently. Dr. Weeraratna has indicated a number of factors which have contributed towards the downfall of the rubber sector. Among these is the ineffective extension staff. According to Dr. Weeraratna, the number of (RRI) extension staff in the rubber sector, which was around 200 in 1980 has dwindled to around 20 by now. The purpose of this article is to examine the background to this issue.

File picture of rubber plantation

In Sri Lanka around 130,000 hectares (ha) are under rubber. Lands below 10 ha (65 per cent) are considered coming under the smallholder sector and those above 10 ha (35 per cent) come under the estate sector. Thus, the smallholders play a vital role in the rubber sector. As rubber smallholders earn a certain amount of daily income rubber could be considered as the bread and butter of bonafide smallholders, especially those who are living in rural areas. Hence, it is essential to educate them on theoretical and practical aspects of rubber cultivation and processing. Therefore effective extension is an important requirement in this process.
For many years the, Rubber Research Institute (RRI) had two extension units.

They were the Smallholdings Department (SHD) for smallholders and Estate Advisory Department (EAD) for large estates. In 1974, by amalgamating these two units a separate department – Advisory Services Department (ASD) was established to assist rubber growers in the country. In 1953 under the Rubber Control Act, the Rubber Control Department (RCD) was established to motivate farmers by providing subsidies.

The head office, headed by a Rubber Controller was in Colombo. The RCD issued permits to relevant land owners for replanting. Copies of the smallholder permits were referred to the ASD of the RRI for initiating the extension activities. Rubber Instructors of the ASD carried out the extension part in all the rubber growing districts. They were instrumental in guiding the smallholders in planting and soil conservation practices on contour lines, processing practices and other cultural activities.

In 1984, the Smallholder Rubber Rehabilitation Project (SRRP1) was implemented under the World Bank assistance. As the ASD had the flexible administrative characteristics and also the strong theoretical and practical link with the RRI, which is a conceptual factor of agricultural development policy, the SRRP planners decided to launch this project through the ASD. As a result the ASD was upgraded to a well-organised department under the Rubber Research Board (RRB). All the executives and the field staff of the ASD were agriculturally qualified and hence, they were competent to implement this project successfully. This situation led SRRP planners to offer the second SRRP too, to the ASD.

In the meantime, the RCD appointed a field staff designated as Rubber Inspectors whose main role was to inspect newly/replanted rubber holdings for releasing subsidy. This staff was appointed ignoring the successful performances (SRRP1) by the field staff of the ASD. As both ASD and RCD were under the Ministry of Plantation Industries (MPI) itself, it was not possible to understand what was the big idea of appointing field staff for the RCD under the non-scientific administration of the RCD when there was a scientific executive staff and extension staff in the ASD. By considering this fact, the MPI shouldn’t have appointed the field staff for the RCD.

However, the ministry officials, Rubber Controller and their colleagues who created this dual-officer confusion in the field, themselves stressed that this confusion was due to employing two sets of officers (ASD-Rubber Extension Officer and RCD-Rubber Inspector) in the field to cater to the needs of rubber farmers. The MPI and RCD repeatedly pointed out to the World Bank Reviewers of the 2nd SRRP, the necessity to amalgamate ASD with RCD to remove the dual-officer confusion among the rubber farmers. Eventually, without considering the economic loss to the country and other structural differences between the ASD (semi-government-EPF benefits) and the RCD (pension benefits), the Rubber Development Department (RDD) was established in July 1994.

In 2002, the MPI itself took action to reduce the staff in the RDD by providing compensation to the ASD staff and giving transfers to the combined staff of the RDD. However, due to union and political pressure, the authorities decided to send back 35 ASD employees of the RDD staff to the RRI. They were absorbed to a newly formed department called ASD of the RRI and asked to execute extension under the management of the director. As a consequence of the changes, the future of ASD personnel was badly affected.

Almost all the qualitative extension performances and also all the promotional avenues of the ASD staff were affected due to this short sighted decision of the MPI and RDD authorities.

According to Dr. Weeraratna’s revelation about the RRI, having only 20 extension officers as against the 208 personnel in 1984 occurred due to sending back 35 ASD employees out of 208 to the RRI from the RDD in 2002.

This was the main reason for dwindling of the extension staff to 20 in the ASD of the RRI.

There are remarkable structural differences between the former ASD of the RRB and the present ASD of the RRI. The present ASD is one of the departments like other Research Departments of the RRI. The former ASD and the RRI were under the RRB which was coordinated by the Chairman successfully. Both were parallel and structurally equal organisations and both staff enjoyed the provident fund benefits. Cadre and administrative arrangements and other procedures of the two were almost same. Both institutions were headed by two directors who were PhD qualified agricultural scientists.

At present in addition to the ASD of the RRI, there are two more institutions to supply services to rubber farmers. They are the Rubber Development Department (former Rubber Control) and Thurusaviya, both headed by non-agriculturists or non-scientifically qualified personnel. These three institutions send their officers to advise/instruct rubber farmers according to their extension approaches. Now like in 1994, rubber farmers are in a dilemma to decide which officer should be contacted by them to get their lands cultivated according to the RRI recommendations. The amalgamation of the ASD and RCD in 1994 was carried out to remove the confusion the rubber farmers faced due to dual nature of services created by the MPI and RDD. Now there are three sets of officers from three institutions under the same MPI (ASD of the RRI, RDD, and Thurusaviya). They supply services at three different places in the field to rubber smallholders in three different approaches. Now why are the authorities of MPI and RDD silent after having created a controversial situation like this? Invariably MPI and RDD authorities should act to rectify this complex situation by launching an active scientific extension service under the RRB who is the sole authority of the rubber agriculture.

It is essential to remove this present triangular mode of confusion in smallholders’ minds so as to attract them towards rubber cultivation. The MPI should combine these three institutions compulsorily to cater to the extension needs of farmers through an effective one scientific organisation under the RRB. Then an agronomically-qualified officer would be able to cater to the needs of rubber farmers, like in 1994 and before. This is a must and also a national requirement.

According to the publication on plantation crops 2015, issued by the MPI, the RDD maintains six large plant nurseries in six districts. In addition to this, the RDD collects budded rubber plants from private commercial nurseries for smallholders. The economic life span of a rubber tree is around 30 years. Hence providing a quality plant is a responsibility of the RDD, which is the present issuing authority. The RRl’s one and only activity in this regard is inspecting the RDD nurseries and private commercial nurseries at their request. However, the RRI is the sole authority of producing a disease free, high yielding clones such as 100 series, 200 series, etc.

The Plant Breeding Department, Plant Science Department, Soil Science Department, Plant Pathology Department and practically trained and skilled officers of the RRI are the chain of units which have been involved in this plant producing process from the very inception of the RRI. Also, this team of officers bears the responsibility of advising and instructing rubber estates to maintain quality rubber plant nurseries for them to use.

By considering all the above factors, the relevant authorities of the rubber sector should hand over the responsibility of supplying quality plants to RRI as this is a national issue.

Before starting the replanting or new planting work in a rubber unit, the farmer should be practically assisted with marking planting holes and soil conservation measures on contour system as this is an important requirement to control the soil degradation. This activity need to be handled by technically skilled field staff of a scientific extension service. This is a responsibility of the RRI.

Subsidy reports should be supported by technical evaluation reports which should be forwarded to an agronomist for evaluation of the rubber holding, field staff must visit the location to forward this report at regular intervals. Accordingly subsidy payments could be paid through banks.

According to the growth of the plantation and work plan of the farmer, he should be directed to have suitable in-service training which need to be arranged by the staff of the RRI at the training centre of the RRI. Ad hoc field training is also needed when necessary.

Every processing unit should be visited and advised by field staff for improving the quality of sheet rubber. Group Processing Centres which were established under the SRRP project need to be reviewed. Marketing facilities to sell RSS could be arranged through co-operative unions which are well organised systems consisting of co-operative banks, transport systems, stores and several other commercial units. These units can sell their stock of RSS at the auction or to rubber exporters. A well organized coordinating system is needed for implementing this process. Credit facilities could be made available to smallholders in rainy seasons through their rural banks.

Inputs such as fertilisers, etc. could be distributed through their rural outlets in a well-organised manner. Social recognition towards tappers should be created through motivational and empowering programmes. (Any comments can be sent to the author via

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