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Sri Lanka’s tea farmers can’t afford fertiliser, can’t get paid enough, can’t make govt listen

Revenue loss from export crops like tea played a big part in Sri Lanka's rapid economic decline. For descendants of Tamil-bonded labourers, life is more difficult now.

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Deniyaya: Dhuminde, treasurer of the Tea Smallholders’ Association of Deniyaya in Matara district, looks shocked at the subsidised price of fertiliser in India.

“Urea costs how much again?” he asks, and does a quick calculation on his phone. “Wow. Maybe I should start importing from India.”

Located in Sri Lanka’s Southern Province, the town of Deniyaya is a tea stronghold. But Dhuminde — and the rest of the tea plantation industry in Sri Lanka — is struggling. First came the sudden ban on all chemical fertilisers in April 2020, then swift drops in crop production. The estimated loss from the drop in tea production alone is $425 million. And now, due to chronic shortages and steep prices, fertiliser isn’t even available to those who need it.

The cost of fertiliser in Sri Lanka has gone up from Sri Lankan Rs 1,500 to Rs 16,000, forcing those who work in the tea industry — and farming in general — to reconcile with what feels like an unofficial ban. For context, fertiliser in India costs around INR 268.

Everybody’s feeling the pinch. Seventy-year-old Leelavati is a small scale tea farmer, and has been working in Deniyaya’s plantations since she the age of 20. She is paid about INR 30 per kilo of tea, but it’s not even remotely enough to pay for the fertilisers.

“If only the government could increase tea prices, and reduce fertiliser prices. But who knows if anybody is listening,” she says. “I can’t make the government listen.”


Also read: ‘We have nothing to give our children’ — Sri Lankans now just waiting for things to get better


Trickling down tea estates 

For the poorest of the poor, the reality of life in rural Sri Lanka remains largely unchanged — except for the rising prices of food.

Parvati, 52, who works at the Sirisily Tea Estate, has to pluck 32 kg of tea every day for INR 240. If she plucks less than that, she gets nothing. She can’t afford to earn nothing in the current economic crisis affecting Sri Lanka.

52-year-old Parvati working at the Sirisily tea factory in Pallegama, Deniyaya, Matara district, South Province, Sri Lanka | Photo: Vandana Menon | ThePrint

She and the other plantation workers — all women — have taken a short break for lunch, and are eating steamed red rice with beans. While the men oversee work, the women pluck tea leaves from around 7:30 AM to 4:30 PM, and live in housing provided by the estate known as line rooms. Parvati lives in one room with six others across ages, including children and two elders. Her entire daily wage goes into procuring food for herself and the elders. She doesn’t make enough for anything else.

“I know there are problems in the country. But my problem is that rice costs more now, and I am still paid the same. I am trying to collect as much as I can today,” she says and then resumes plucking the tea leaves.

Parvati is a descendant of Tamil bonded labourers who arrived in Sri Lanka from Tamil Nadu in the 19th century. The hierarchy of tea plantations and its workers are tied to the ethnic make-up of the island nation. Tamil labourers like Parvati are at the bottom, and don’t own any land — in 1949, the Tamil population of Sri Lanka was stripped of their citizenship and disenfranchised, a year after the country’s independence. They were granted citizenship again only in 1977.

“While everyone else enjoyed their access to freedom, healthcare and education, the Tamil community wasn’t allowed those benefits — it came to them only thirty years later,” said parliamentarian Jeevan Thondaman, general secretary of the Ceylon Workers Congress. “So that’s why this plantation community is backward. They started the race a bit too late, and now they’re trying to catch up.”

One rung above labourers are workers like Leelavati, who is a Sinhala Buddhist. Though she is also poor, she is a small scale tea farmer — and owns the rights to the land she cultivates. The around five lakh smallholders across the country contributed to over 70 per cent of the overall tea production of Sri Lanka in 2018. They manage their land themselves, and either sell their produce directly in the market or to larger plantations.

At the top of the ladder are larger tea plantations, like Lumbini Tea Valley in Deniyaya. Lumbini is a 200-acre plantation, and also contracts 1,500 small farmers like Leelavati from nearby villages. They also employ 200 labourers to work on their estate, and pay them the government wage of INR 240 for 32 kg.

The loss of revenue from tea and other export crops has played a huge part in the rapid economic decline of Sri Lanka | Photo: Vandana Menon | ThePrint

Also read: Drink, gamble, plan the exit: How Sri Lankan elites in Colombo are handling economic crisis


Move to organic farming

The roads winding up the hills into Deniyaya’s tea estates are lined with parked trucks, waiting in days-long queues for diesel. Drivers park their trucks and return every few hours to inch forward.

The fuel shortage means fewer trips to sell produce at markets, and the amount of tea being carried has reduced too. Crops have gone down and input prices have gone up: in just the last five-six months, the costs for tea plantations like the Lumbini Tea Valley in Deniyaya have gone up 40 per cent.

Sri Lanka imported $500 million worth of fertilisers, and many believe the import ban to be politically motivated: though it was dressed as a move to improve health outcomes and promote sustainable agriculture, sources say that it was also intended to reduce the Rajapaksa government’s expenditure and save money.

Tea leaves being collected at a plantation in Deniyaya, Matara district, South Province, Sri Lanka | Photo: Vandana Menon | ThePrint

Former Minister for Plantation Industries, Navin Dissanayake, compared the overnight move to organic farming as similar to demonetisation in India. He opposed President Gotabaya Rajapaksa’s move to ban fertilisers.

“It was theoretically a good move, but it was overnight. Commercial agriculture requires normal fertiliser and weedicide. The option to use organic fertiliser should be determined by individual farmers,” he said.

The ban affected the industry terribly, and production of crops declined by 30 per cent. The loss of revenue from tea and other export crops played a part in the rapid economic decline of Sri Lanka.

“It especially affected the small farmer,” said Chaminda Jayawardena, managing director of Lumbini. “The only positive thing is that they are getting a higher price for their leaf now.”

Tea is one of Sri Lanka’s top exports, besides garments. With the dollar price going up, income is increasing too. But plantations can’t concentrate on manufacturing and are being forced to spend extra on expensive fuel and other inputs. Power cuts and diesel shortages, along with shortages in paper for packaging, have affected the business even if tea itself is bringing in more money — Lumbini, for example, experiences power cuts for seven hours a day.

“It’s too early to predict what’ll happen this year,” added Jayawardena, who used last year’s diktat to formally implement some organic methods he had been experimenting with. “I think it’ll work for us. But we’re totally different from the average plantation because we’ve been working on going organic for a while.”

Meanwhile, Parvati hasn’t noticed any reduction in her workload over the last year. She’s still plucking as much as she can. She smiles when asked what she’d like to change in her working conditions. “The only thing I know is that I have to pluck 32 kg again tomorrow,” she said. “Whatever happens outside — I’ll come back tomorrow.”

This is the concluding part of the three-part series ‘Paradise Lost‘ by Vandana Menon on the impact of Sri Lanka’s economic crisis on citizens.   

(Edited by Prashant)

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