Master Sir, will you be my friend!

(Sunday Times’ Business Times)

Going through the tea market report of a reputed tea broker the other day, I was surprised as to the composition of the countries that have become Sri Lanka’s main tea buyers.

Surprise may not be the right choice of words. Probably puzzled would be a better one. Scanning the list of 15 plus key importing countries, I could not find the United Kingdom (UK) on the list? What no UK? The country from where 17- year-old Scottish lad James Taylor (no relation of US folk singer James Taylor) arrived in 1852 in then Ceylon and went on to plant the first tea seedlings at Loolecondera estate in Galaha, 15 years later, in 1867.

This year when Sri Lanka celebrates 150 years of tea (1867 – 2017) with year-round celebrations, new promotions and mega conferences, much will be spoken about Taylor and the origins of tea and the huge impact that successive British planters made not only on tea manufacture and production but also the way of life of the plantations; the quaint estate bungalows; Appu’s; Periya dorais and Sinna dorais; the customary high tea and of course rugby with upcountry clubs dominating the sports scene in the 1950s-‘70s.

Much will be written about Taylor and life on the plantations where in some instances time has stood still (there are still a few line-rooms, the row of tiny ramshackle houses where estate workers lived, around), but the celebrations come at a time when the industry is facing its worst-ever crisis. More on that later.

It was the British who created the Colombo Tea Auction, the finest and biggest in the world and most of the tea at that time was shipped to Britain. While it was everything British on the plantations – until the 1970s when the estates were taken over by the government – what is food for thought now is that Britain doesn’t figure at all in Sri Lanka’s top 15 tea buyers.

Russia and West Asia have become Sri Lanka’s biggest tea buyers with the US also figuring in this list, as the country’s 13th largest buyer.

Kenya, which has made huge waves into tea markets as a large producer of tea also thanks to British influence, has beaten Sri Lanka as the world’s largest tea exporter though Colombo still figures at the top in terms of tea export revenues.

While Colombo’s tea links with the UK have all but severed, Kenya where the first tea plantations emerged in 1903 still has a strong British presence with the UK being one of its top three buyers.

So 150 years after the first tea seedlings were planted, the tea market dynamics have changed and as stated earlier what would be interesting to the non-observant reader is that the UK, father of Sri Lankan tea and the quaint tea bungalows, doesn’t figure at all in tea exports from Sri Lanka.

While it was the UK that created a crop that has stood the test of time and still is Sri Lanka’s main commodity export, the other side of the coin is that British planters imported shiploads of low wage labour from South India to work on the plantations under abysmal conditions. While their status and life has improved a lot under Sri Lankan estate ownership management – a far cry from the slave-driving days of the early 1900s-, they still remain far removed from the rest of Sri Lanka’s unskilled workforce and still considered a captive labour force – almost at the beck and call of their ‘masters’.

The ‘silence’ of the plantations is eloquently captured by songstress Neela Wickremasinghe’s Sinhala version of Nimal Mendis’ classic “Master Sir’ … “Master sir mage himi thana denawado//Ane sir, anukampa nosithedo….

In the English rendition of the song, Mendis wrote (and sang) … “ Master sir: There’s a long long way for us to go -//Before this tug a war can come to an end-//and when that day will be//Oh I don’t know master//When can I call you friend.//It’s not the extra fifty cents you pay me//Even tho’I can feed my child one more spoonful of rice//Master sir, would you give me dignity//Master sir, will you treat me kind and nice..

Today its only nostalgia that remains as Sri Lankan planters continued the tradition of the way tea was produced while the quaint tea bungalow concept has returned, started on a commercial scale as a tourist accommodation facility by Dilmah and now followed by many others.

Who wouldn’t miss an opportunity to stay in a tea bungalow, complete with a bristling fire place, a steaming cup of tea – the best money can buy – and in the evening a round of drinks and conversation?

This is the fun part but on a more serious note the tea industry is facing its biggest crisis as the British model comes under huge scrutiny with rising costs of production, losing market share, new competitors and lower tea prices. Estates are chalking up huge losses as the traditional model of fixed wages is not working anymore; young people are moving out of the plantations for better paying and often, more dignified jobs and, the latest; plans to carve out the estates with regional plantations companies restricted to a maximum of 5,000 acres of an average 20-25,000 acres.

Amidst these issues, the tea industry is also torn by divisions on whether the country should be a bulk black tea exporter or a value-added tea exporter like Dilmah, Mlesna or some of the well-known local Ceylon Tea brands.

One section of the trade believes there should be more tea imports for tea blending while tea brands like Dilmah, now the sixth top tea brand in the world and Sri Lanka’s best known brand globally, argue strongly for a wholesome Ceylon tea brand without blending which commands a premium price overseas.

So while we cherish the cup that has cheered the economy and brought smiles and joy to millions of connoisseurs of pure Ceylon Tea, the tea industry enters its 150th year drowning in sorrow.

As singer Mary Hopins would say … “Those were the days my friend//we thought they’d never end//we’d sing and dance forever and a day.” With the weather last year described wittily by Plantation Association spokesperson Roshan Rajadurai as ‘from droughts to deluge’ and the ban on weedicides which has led to an increase in the undergrowth which has also ‘created an environment with more snakes and other predators’, it’s not the best of times and (one would hope) not the worst of times, either, for the tea industry. Its predators of a different sort for a government riven with internal conflicts and contradictory positions, as it – together with all stakeholders – gropes for answers on how to sustain the tea industry with history in the making.