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Planters’ lives: the myth and the facts

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by ACB Pethiyagoda

Some weeks ago Gamini Seneviratne reminisced in a very readable and amusing article in this paper of good times public servants had in Nuwara Eliya in the 1960s. These were particularly when on circuit to villages in the backwoods with food, drink and good company.

No one would have grudged them that as they made significant contributions to serve the public in a fair and just manner. This was partly due to their training and with less bothersome and uneducated politicians interfering in the discharge of their duties than at present.

The writer went on to say, “…..in that District, planters’ wives had to adjust to the routine of husbands – muster before crack of dawn, going through the paper work, ‘elevenses’, a heavy lunch, nap, back to the factory, followed by tennis where available, shop-talk, liquor, dinner and early to bed….”

Perhaps the writer was referring to Planters in charge of what are known as ‘Naatu Thotams’ which mean estates owned by Chettiars (money lenders) or the new rich who had made their money as crooked politicians, traders in illicit liquor, timber etc. These estates were managed or rather mismanaged by family members with no training and finally through neglect, fraud or both and lack of credit for routine operations ending up as denuded scrub jungles.

However the vast majority of Planters as Superintendents and their Assistants employed by reputed Agency Houses such as Colombo Commercial Company, George Steuarts, Whittall Boustead, Mackwoods, Carson Cumberbatch etc. which managed estates owned by local or British owned companies worked with a great sense of dedication and commitment and enjoyed their well earned creature comforts. Failures were not tolerated – a few days notice was sufficient for the high jump out of the premises.

The normal working day of an Assistant Superintendent (Sinna Dorai or SD) started at about 6 a.m. with muster. Over the years a system evolved by which the bulk of the workers both men and women assigned to different gangs with a Kangany (Supervisor) knew as a routine their places of work each day.

The men were usually tasked year round to weeding and to other cultural operations such as pruning, draining etc. at particular times of the year. Women were engaged entirely on plucking and divided into gangs, each assigned to particular fields, according to their years since the last pruning.

Hence, muster consisted of detailing sundry workers and more importantly where plans for the days work were made by the SD, his Conductor (later designated Field Officer) and the Kanganies. This was an important function as the work on a 400 to 500 acre tea division with around 1.2 workers per acre (500 to 600 workers) had to be planned for maximum cost benefit, labour wages being the largest portion of the cost of production.

It was here that shortfalls in output the previous day, modified approaches to improve standards of work or strategies to avert impending labour problems, which were almost daily occurrences resulting in loss of productivity, were adopted. It was a case of being one step ahead of possible problems every day.

A newly recruited SD was considered a liability to his employers until he sharpened his skills to develop as a firm and fair man manager conscious of his responsibility for a huge asset which, if neglected in the smallest way even on a single working day, the repair would be expensive and sometimes beyond correction.

Work gangs had to be visited at least once a day and their performance inspected and corrected as necessary. If it is manuring, the SD will spend the greater part of his day in those fields as the expensive fertilizer on which future harvests depend will need his closest attention.

Not only has he to ensure the application is carried out satisfactorily but also make certain that not a drop of the fertilizer ends up in neighbouring vegetable gardens! Women assigned to plucking must ensure their leaf is of acceptable standard and the required weight conforming to the norm for the season is brought in.

In the evening the SD will, with the assistance of the Field Officer, complete the Check Rolls and other books. This task can end up as late as seven or eight p.m. after which he can bathe, eat and get to bed – six days a week and on Sundays as well during high cropping months.

Prior to nationalisation of estates an Assistant would take at least five or six years to be promoted Senior Assistant Superintendent if on an estate with several Divisions or to a small estate as Superintendent. That too if he has an unblemished and commendable track record.

A Superintendent’s (Periya Dorai’s or PD’s) tasks are more demanding. He is sometimes without an SD and if the estate is about 300 or 400 acres, has to make sure that field work at all times is of a high order. This he can manage with his intense training as an Assistant with one or two Field Officers and Kanganies allowing him to spend the greater part of his time in the office and factory.

Another major responsibility is to arrange for essential foodstuffs like rice, sugar, flour etc. of good quality are bought for the labour and their families and issued at cost on a weekly basis.

Office work over the years increased with Agency houses, Government Departments, Labour Unions, Suppliers of goods and services etc. creating loads of paper work. Problems with labour have also increased tremendously over the years for several reasons.

The life styles or workers have changed drastically resulting in immense social and economic problems and alcoholism as well since their grandparents or great grandparents, mostly from the Pudukotai area in South India, came as indentured labour walking all the way from Talaimannar, with many dying on the pathways to the hill and low country estates.

These lead to conflicts among themselves, their union leaders and ending up with management which has to continually achieve high levels of productivity in spite of these human problems. While grappling with never ending union demands, and successive Governments granting them without realizing the adverse economic impact on the industry in order to maintain their vote banks, Superintendents have to keep a close watch on the bottom line of their profit and loss statements.

Effecting economies as a solution leads to declining standards which eventually have adverse effects on profitability. Hence, meeting the stringent demands of the tea market and obtaining high prices is about the only way to keep afloat.

Manufacture of black tea is a very exacting process where attention to every detail is a must. In the early evening the Superintendent will see that leaf is withered at the correct temperature and to the correct degree. Later in the night when the withered leaf is rolled to break it up, roller pressures and time in each of three or four rollers needs careful monitoring. Rolled leaf in lump form is then broken up in roll breakers to separate the small particles from the bigger to obtain dhooles’ which are spread on tables for fermentation and later for drying.

These processes also need care to ensure the product is neither over or under fermented or fired by carrying out constant checks on the inlet and outlet temperature of the dryers. Sifting into the various grades is normally carried out during the day and is less labour intensive than the other processes as various items of machinery are used.

Conscientious Superintendents will spend whole nights in their factories until after a time Tea Makers, (later designated Factory Officers) their supervisors and labour learn to carry out the various operations to perfection. Thereafter a Superintendent needs to follow up with surprise visits until adjustments become necessary in keeping with seasonal climatic changes.

The reward for all these efforts comes in the form of high sale averages and profit levels with occasional congratulatory message from local and London’s Mincing Lane brokers.

For several decades before the 1960s and for a few years after tea exports were the country’s highest foreign exchange earners with such earnings going a long way to import essentials like rice, sugar, flour etc. to keep the nation fed. This contribution to the national income was achieved by planters through dint of hard work, planning, execution and strong sense of accountability.

All in it was never a life of beer and skittles, elevenses, heavy lunches, long siestas etc. except occasionally when the job was done well and celebration justified.



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Features

Glimmers of hope?

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The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis

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By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.

FERTILISER ISSUE

1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.

Recommendations

1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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