COLOMBO: India is the second largest producer of tea in the world, next only to China, and chai is the most popular drink there. But tea as a product is more intimately associated with Sri Lanka or Ceylon, than with India. Ceylon is synonymous with “Ceylon Tea”, and not any of its other products.
And yet, while India has made known its intention to designate the beverage as its “national drink” in April 2013, nobody in Sri Lanka has thought it fit to do so.
Although Sri Lanka is the second largest exporter of tea, next only to Kenya, and is the fourth largest producer in the world, tea is not part of the Lankan national ethos. It is not a popular drink at home and most of the production is exported.
For example, in 2011, India produced 990 million kg of tea and exported only about 180 million kg. In the same year, Sri Lanka produced 328 million kg but exported almost 286 million kg of it.
“Perhaps it is for this reason that tea cannot be designated as Sri Lanka’s national drink,” says Dr N Yogaratnam, a plantations expert who is the chairman of Tree Crops and Agro Consultants.
“Designation of tea as a national drink and promoting its domestic consumption could hit tea exports, and that cannot be justified from an economic point of view,” he told Express here on Sunday.
Not part of Ethos
Despite its importance for the economy, tea is not part of the Sri Lankan psyche in a pleasant way as it is in the minds of Indians, some observers point out.
“In the popular Lankan mind, the tea industry is still associated with some unsavoury aspects of Lanka’s past, namely, British domination spread over more than a 100 years; the grabbing of forest lands by White planters; and the massive import of Indians to work on the plantations, which brought in its train Indian interference in Sri Lanka’s internal affairs,” said a Tamil tea trader who did not want to be identified.
“Even today, the periodic negotiations on wages between the planters’ association and the workers are seen as a Sinhalese-Tamil conflict because the owners are mostly Sinhalese and the workers are almost 100 per cent Tamil,” he added.
Be that as it may, Dr Yogaratnam recommends a national effort to promote tea production on scientific lines because the Sri Lankan tea industry is lagging behind its international competitors.
“Productivity in Sri Lanka is amongst the lowest in the world. The current national average is around 1520 per kg/ha (kilogram per hectare). The low country small holdings have shown better results with productivity touching 1850 per kg/ha. In comparison, South Indian productivity is currently in the region of 2240 kg/ha and Kenyan productivity is around 2300 kg/ha,” he said.
Even plucking productivity is low in Sri Lanka, Dr. Yogaratnam points out.