The publication of Merril. J. Fernando’s autobiography last month is a useful peg to hang a discussion on the Ceylon tea industry – we advisedly call it Ceylon tea rather than Sri Lanka tea – as the former is the name by which this unique product is known globally. Merril Fernando, of course, needs no introduction. He is very well known in this country as the creator of the Dilmah brand he coined from the names of his two sons, Dilhan and Malik, which he took to the world outside making it the best known nationally owned tea brand in Sri Lanka. As we said in a review of the book last Sunday, MJF is not the country’s biggest tea exporter but his is the best known nationally-owned brand of Ceylon tea in the tea drinking world.
During the British colonial years and the early post-Independence period, tea was our major export and foreign exchange earner. But decades ago garments overtook tea and also, remittances from blue collar workers striking out overseas to support their families back home became a reckonable factor in the country’s foreign exchange budget. Net earnings from tea, obviously, was far higher than what garments, that had by far become the country’s largest manufacturing industry fairly quickly, brought in. That was because the imported input into tea was a fraction of what the clothing factories had to import to manufacture their product. This included not only fabrics but much more. The labour was the major value adding factor in the domestic garment industry.
The major imported input into the tea industry is fertilizer. Like garments, tea growing too is a labour intensive industry. Onetime Finance Minister Ronnie de Mel who presented 10 national budget for the J.R. Jayewardene regime from 1977 to 1988 once famously said that Sri Lanka’s economy sits on a tripod of women workers – those slaving on the tea fields, working in the garment factories and venturing out as domestic servants largely to the Middle East. Never were truer words spoken. The British brought in indentured Tamil labour from India to work on their tea estates under harsh conditions because the upcountry peasantry was reluctant for various reasons to work on the plantations. These were created at tremendous environmental cost on land sold for a pittance under the infamous Waste Lands Ordinance of 1840.
This stipulated that “all forest, waste, unoccupied or uncultivated land was to be presumed to be the property of the Crown until the contrary is proved.” This resulted in the denuding of the country’s mountain slopes clothed with montane rain forests providing the sponge-like catchments for the rivers flowing through the valleys. The price paid was irreparable ecological damage to first plant coffee and then tea. The upcountry peasantry lost their common grazing land and much more to this despoliation that brought fame and fortune to British plantation owning companies quoted on the London Stock Exchange. Ceylon tea soon earned the reputation of being the world’s best and Merril. J. Fernando in his memorable over six decade long journey through the industry retains at age 92 a passion for the product that was the foundation of his success.
Apart from very readable accounts of his upbringing and early years covered in the book, Fernando has dwelt on the exploitation of Ceylon tea by the British whose chief focus was the bottom line. He writes that during the period of his training as a tea-taster in the UK he was greatly distressed “by the ruthless exploitation of our tea industry and its workers that took place in London.” He had developed a great respect for the British as a result of his friendship with many Brits resident her e as well as his employers who controlled much of the tea export trade. But all that was shaken when he realized what was being done in London to Ceylon tea by the British who dominated the global tea trade in Mincing Lane, “the world’s undisputed tea center controlling and manipulating the distribution and marketing of tea from grower countries.” He says that resulted in producers, especially those in Ceylon, being held to ransom adding that we were then more vulnerable to market manipulation than any other grower as about 90% of national production was being exported, a large proportion going to the UK.
A major service rendered to Ceylon tea by Merril Fernando was his resistance to efforts to make Sri Lanka a so-called ‘tea hub’ by importing cheap teas and blending them with Ceylon tea. This would have been a profitable business but at the cost of both the unique character and reputation of Ceylon tea. In the middle seventies, as result of the JVPs 1971 adventure attributed by the then rulers to land hunger, the land reform laws compelled the sale 150,000 acres of British-owned sterling estates at a price of Rs. 1,125 an acre (pounds 42 and 50 pence). It was agreed that the compensation would be “prompt, effective (meaning may be remitted) and adequate.” Payment was concluded over four years. Rather than alleviate land hunger, the plantations were vested in two monolithic state corporation, the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation and the Janatha Estates Development Board.
Despite the presence of 23 Regional Plantation Companies managing state-owned plantations leased to them in 14 regions, 70% of Sri Lanka’s tea is produced by nearly half a million smallholders mostly in the low country. Today the industry is hard-pressed for labour with the tea workers lot way below minimum norms. But the industry remains a vital segment of the Sri Lankan economy.