Bold changes needed to salvage Sri Lanka’s tea plantation sector

The Sri Lankan tea plantation industry is facing serious challenges that call for unbiased analysis of the current status and bold rethinking of the solutions required if it is to continue to hold its place as one of the nation’s leading sources of foreign exchange.

What we are witnessing presently is an industry that cannot be sustained anymore with a colonial-time attendance-based wages system. Tea is a high labour-intensive crop and requires an abundant supply of inexpensive and skilled labour throughout the year. Availability of cheap labour in the colonial period was the most significant contribution to the profits of the tea industry. The labour component of the total cost of production of tea is about 65 per cent. The reality is that Sri Lanka is no more a country with cheap labour.

According to the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) sources, the 2021 wage hikes are contributing to uncertainty in the plantation sector. With the latest wage hike, RPCs predict that they will lose an additional Rs. 15 billion annually and have decided not to accept a wage hike for plantation workers.

The periodical demand for wage hikes, given the rising cost of living, is rational and inevitable from the workers’ side. However, even with periodical pay increases, some reports state that these workers will continue to remain under poverty levels.

Wages, however, are only part of the problem. This report analyses the current situation and proposes several measures that can be implemented to revive the tea industry

Under-utilised tea lands: Old Seedling Tea (OS tea) to Vegetative propagated tea (VP tea)

Tea is not native to Sri Lanka and was first propagated by using seeds imported from China and India. Due to the genetic variability among plants and other agronomical factors the plant growth and the yield of those century-old seedling tea bushes were not uniform.

A report published by the Tea Research Institute (TRI) states that over 95 per cent of OS tea in the high country, Uva, and mid-country are over 60-80 years old. The productivity of seedling tea normally started to decline after 50 years. The TRI introduced high-yielding vegetative propagated clone tea in the 1950s to replace low-yielding old seedling tea. As its name implies, VP tea is a plant that is propagated vegetatively by a single leaf internode cutting from a mother plant.

TRI reports that in 2003, 46.7 per cent of the area under VP tea produced 61.7 per cent of the total crop, while 53.3 per cent of the area under OS tea produced only 38.4 per cent of the total. The average yield per hectare of made tea under seedling tea was 1050 kg while it was 1972 kg under VP tea. “VP tea was, thus, seen to have over 80 per cent greater capacity for than OS tea”.

The ability to produce higher yields is not the only benefit of VP tea. The plant’s uniform canopy cover acts as a protective soil cover, impedes soil erosion. Exposed topsoil in OS tea lands tends to cause higher soil losses due to raindrop splash erosion and also due to runoff erosion. Several research studies have proven that the soil erosion losses in VP tea land are very minimal. One should imagine how much soil would have eroded for about 2 centuries under OS tea.