Impact of economic crisis on Sri Lanka’s tea industry
During the time of Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s regime, the former president decided to overnight change the fertiliser policy from inorganic to organic.
As per my experience as a former planter, this was not the best decision to be made. The Tea Research Institute has published a replacement ratio of nitrogen in a slab according to the yield per hectare which should be around 10-12 per cent for 100 kg of made tea. But the contribution of the organic fertiliser is nearly 1 or 2 per cent which means to replace the above nitrogen levels, a considerable amount of organic manure per hectare is required which is not possible by withdrawing the nitrogen replacement. The yield from tea has dropped tremendously as a result. However, with the present price increases we would have earned a profit in tea by double.
For a country that primarily depends on agricultural production, we have evidently collapsed when the income of the tea industry is below the expectation. Amongst the exported crops tea ranked at the top even in 2019 as per the report published by the Central Bank – “Economic and Social Statistics of Sri Lanka, 2020, whilst other crops such as rubber, coconut were declining in production. Thus, in order to retain the export market, it is key to revitalise the tea industry by providing with necessary quotas of inorganic fertiliser.
Even though the former president apologised to the nation for his decision of changing the fertiliser system to organic as he withdrew from office, it was too late to reverse the decision since the economy had hit a rock bottom by that time.
In order to overhaul this policy decision the government has recommenced importing inorganic fertiliser. However, these imports are not close to even 10 per cent of our requirement. Most of the estates have not received an adequate quota of fertiliser thus far. From a pragmatic point of view, a cursory glance through the tea plantations shows that the tea leaves have become yellow, yet the harvesting continues. This might eventually cause the death of the tea plants after two or three years.
News reports have also highlighted that currently EPF and ETF are not paid in the tea industry which is a violation of the labour laws. Some estates harvest tea on a kilo basis to avoid the labour wages of Rs. 1000 a day, thus, causing labourers severe hardships, particularly during a crisis of this nature. The vicious cycle of labour exploitation continues as the industry has seen major changes due to the fertiliser policy.
Hence the tea industry requires special attention if it is to retain its status quo as the leading export crop in Sri Lanka to contribute to the economy and achieve better social protection systems for the workers in the estate sector.
Former Planter, Badulla
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