By Prasanna Kotalawala –
Ever since the 20 RPCs obtained the management of 457 Tea estates there has been a litany of controversies. The latest being the unauthorized, illegal land grab of approximately an extent of 22244 (twenty two thousand two hundred and forty four hectares of land in Tea estates. In order to get a perception of the magnitude of this serious issue, a brief history of the Tea industry is necessary.
Subsequent to the nationalization of Sterling and rupee companies in 1973 the estates were managed by three state institutions namely the USAWASAMA (Up Country Co-operative Estates Development Board), JEDB (Janatha Estates Development Board) and the SPC (Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation). The Usawasama was a total disaster, mainly due to political reasons but the other two state institutions managed the estates satisfactorily and undertook replanting, new planting and in filling etc as Capital Expenditure. During this period too, there were political intrusions but not to levels that impeded the smooth functioning of the estates.
In 1992 the government of the day decided to privatize the management of these 457 Tea estates comprising of 94.521 hectares to 20 RPCs for reasons best known to them. On an average, an estate unit comprised of hundreds of hectares of tea and the infrastructure i.e. factories , stores, other related buildings including bungalows for executives and Staff, worker housing, transport and supervisory vehicles, crèches, medical and education facilities and a network of roads etc. The estates also had competent, knowledgeable and capable managers/ Superintendents field and factory personnel and importantly a skilled work force. Each of these estates could be valued at millions of US Dollars. Notwithstanding all of the above the government decided to handover the management of these well maintained estates to Regional plantations companies at a ridiculously low and absurd rental of a paltry Rs 500/= per estate per ANNUM. It is interesting to note that then Minister of Justice and Constitutional Affairs and Deputy Minister of Finance Dr. G.L.Peiris voiced his concern, in the lack of transparency in the selection of the private companies as many of them had no Managerial expertise. This alone demonstrates the callous disregard of the British who cultivated and nurtured this industry that shaped our economy for almost 150 years.
The extent of 94.521 handed over to the RPCs was corroborated way back in 1995 by Mr P.P. Manickam a credible independent analyst of the Social Scientists Association. This amount was confirmed by Mr. Sunil Poliyadde the then Chairman of the Planters Association of Ceylon, in a recent report ( www.historyofceylontea.com ) to be 94.244ha. Thus creating a short fall of 277 ha. Whatever became of that missing land?
Mr Poliyadde also referred to encroachments with political backing and some
Government take over without mentioning any details and extents.
The most serious and alarming issue now surfacing in the industry’ bordering on criminality is that the 94.521 ha. leased out to the 20RPCs in 1995, have now after 26 years, dwindled down to an extent of 72.000ha as stated by the International Labour Organization’s research and Survey report (www.I’ll.org.) on plantation Labour carried out in 2017 celebrating,100 years of ILO. This clearly denotes that an extent of 22.521 ha of Tea lands are not in the custody of the RPCs. Were they sold, which is illegal, were the sub leased, if so was the Golden Share holders informed, were they encroached, if so by whom, and was the Police authorities informed and is legal action being taken. The law of the country Prohibits encroachment of both private and public property and furthermore these leased lands of the RPCs as per the lease agreement cannot be transferred or sold without Government approval. It should also be noted that Land grabbing is a serious issue that affects the environment and the economy.
Mr, Bulamulla, Chairman of the Planters Association of Ceylon, should without flying drones explain to the people, what is going on!!!.Your Assurance that in the year 2030 the methodology of planting will be SMART PLANTING will only be a dream as was the case all along. This serious and illegal grabbing of state land if allowed to continue, this Public property will no longer be public but private. A dream coming true for the RPCs whose interest is in Real-Estate.
The approximate value of the missing land could be assessed by doing the math as follows;
22.521 ha x 2.47 =55.627 acres
55.627 aces x 160 = 8.900.320 perches
Average minimum Real Estate land in the Tea plantations could be valued at
Rs18500 or US100 per perch.
8.900.320 x Rs 18.500 = Rs165 be or US890.0 million
The tea estate lands the RPCs now holds are of enormous value. This was illustrated by the dubious transfer of over 12,000 hectares of Hatton plantations at the stock exchange by Sunshine Holdings to Pyramid Wilma of Singapore for a sum of Rs3.0 billion or US$ 16.0 million…a life line to the government.
In conclusion I wish to state that we have seen with our own eyes the pitiful sight of our national tea plantations, that planters of yesteryear strived to maintain with passion and enthusiasm only to now witness the once flourishing Tea gardens in a continuous state of deterioration at the hands of the RPCs who are now vehemently clamoring for an extension of their lease period to 99 Years, which is virtual outright ownership.