* Decision only in consultation with President
* Says unable to compromise smallholders
By Ravi Ladduwahetty
Despite the vociferous outcries of tea exporters for a tea hub where imports were to be made for value addition, Plantation Industries Minister Mahinda Samarasinghe said that he has not taken a decision in this regard as the line Minister and claimed that it will be government policy only after he takes a decision in this direction.
"A decision in this regard will have to be taken only after consulting President Mahinda Rajapaksa as the interests of the tea small holders cannot be compromised," he told The Island Financial Review yesterday.
He also pointed out that 70% of national production came from the tea smallholders and of that, 90% came from smallholders who owned less that half an acre.
"I want to make it very clear by saying that as the line Minister in charge of the subject of Plantations, I have not taken any decision in this respect. What we are witnessing is a healthy debate taking place between exporters/traders and some producers about the advantage and disadvantage of establishing a tea hub", he said.
"I have at no time entered this debate for obvious reasons. I cannot stop the private sector making suggestions to our Ministry as to what they feel should be done in terms of making the tea industry more sustainable given the fact that there is still tremendous potential to be realized in this industry.
"I also do not want to stop various government officials stating their points of view from time to time in the best interest of the industry.
"Let me make it once again very clear, if a decision is to be taken in this respect, it will be done by me and on one else, of cause with the concurrence President Mahinda Rajapaksa. And let me also make it very clear that I will not take any decision detrimental to the local industry by sacrificing their interest for a speculated objective of increasing foreign exchange earnings. It is important not to forget that 70% of the tea production is in the hands of small holders and even amongst the small holders nearly 90% is in the hands of the small holders owning less than half an acre. So these people obviously depend on the income that they derive from this small holding to meet their daily living expenses," the minister said.
"Another point to remember is that there are 400,000 small holder families accounting for 70% of production. This kind of a huge population cannot be sacrificed for the sake of possible increases in foreign exchange earnings.
"So we need to be very careful when we take such policy decisions and this is also why I have decided not to enter this debate. Of cause the Ministry and the Sri Lanka Tea Board will continue to study proposals that it receive from stakeholders, but let me be very clear that no decision has been taken by me in this respect and I will never take a decision detrimental to the 400,000 small holders," he said.
Meanwhile, Colombo Tea Traders Association (CTTA) Chairman Jayantha Keragala and Tea Exporters Association (TEA) Chairman Niraj De Mel, contacted for comment, said that if that was the stance of the Plantation Industries Minister and the government, so be it!
They said that they would not go against government policy and that they would abide by whatever decision the Minister and the government made.
They said that they submitted a report only on the request of the Minister on what they believed was right in the best interests of the industry and its way forward and that it was a proposal not meant to be forced down anyone’s throat.