Plantation crops research institutions, the nodal public sector research and development agency in Sri Lanka are now faced with the daunting task of maintaining their traditional glory and rendering the much needed assistance to over come the industry's current problems and to meet it's long term goals.
The global developments also indicate that Sri Lanka is no longer in the forefront of plantation crops research. Most producing countries are now well enriched with their own research efforts. These indications of a setback trend now seen in Sri Lanka require reversing through appropriate changes in research policy and management.
This is one of the tasks before industry leaders and policy makers engaged in the country's prime agro-asset. It is generally accepted that where the state has too great an involvement in the provision of goods and services that would be more efficiently undertaken by the private sector, transfer of management of such services will not be counter productive.
What is contemplated is the transfer of only the management of the state owned institutions from the public sector to the private sector for greater effectiveness. More pointedly, promotion of public - private sector partnership to jointly develop the plantation industry.
Thrust research areas
Productively improvements, product diversification/value addition and cost control are the three macro-level features for the plantation crop scenario with particular reference to their research dimensions.
Bridging the yield gaps that exist between the current experimental yields in the region of 5000 kg / ha, 3500 kg / ha and 10,000 nuts/ha for tea, rubber and coconut respectively and the likely maximum yield potential (theoretical perspective) of about 15,000 kg/ha, 10,000 kg/ha and 25,000 nuts/ha for tea, rubber and coconut respectively, over the next ten years should be the foremost research efforts, besides increasing the share in product diversification/ value addition.
While labour wages and cost of imported materials are bound to rise, the extent to which they could be neutralised in terms of unit cost of production through a combination of improved agricultural practices, optimising key inputs and mechanization of field and factory operations where possible are the challenges before the plantation industry.
Re-organisation and policy issues
With privatised management of plantations and limited privatisation of training of plantations personnel, initially at least a limited privatisation should be considered. That part of the institutions which could be meaningfully privatised is its management.
If a total privatisation is planned, it would be counter - productive. Because of the system of cess collection and treasury grants, these Institutions are some of the best funded research institutions in the country and it would be a retrograde step if this arrangement were to be disrupted and an alternative substituted involving a voluntary subscription from plantation management companies, the inflow of which would fluctuate with the fortunes of the industry and the individual managements perception of the gains resulting from remaining within the Institution's present network.
The limited privatisation suggested could be achieved, first, by making appropriate changes in the composition of the Boards, and second, by giving the Board more autonomy and subjecting it to only such minimal controls are necessary by the Government in the changed situation.
Basically, the changes contemplated are two fold: first, the office of the Chairman who should have administrative, scientific and industry orientation (to ensure internal check) but appointed by the Minister (to establish external check) and second, the other members who should, to the extent possible, be nominated by representative organizations relevant to the crop involved, so as to be aware of the challenges to their respective industry/sector.
The present composition of the Boards requires reconsideration. More scientific and private sector representations, covering areas of research specific to the crops concerned is important. This would enable the Board to provide support and guidance to the Directors on matters pertaining to research specific to the crop. CARP being represented by it's director in not the answer.
CARP is more concerned with arable crops than plantations. In any event, the changed situation will offer a greater degree of counselling on industry affairs to the Government by the Institutes.
The need to invest the Boards with more delegatory powers can hardly be over emphasised. In effect, it should be well within the competence of the Boards to decide and take action on all functions listed under its power without reference to the Ministry.
However, in order to ensure that the powers so invested are not misused or the decisions taken could have adverse repercussions in parallel institutions, a provision could be incorporated into the Act to enable the Minister to withhold, suspend or annul any decision of the Board.
Making allowances for a higher requirement and activity at the headquarters of these institutes may seem disproportionate to the developments in the country where plantation crop production are distributed at different elevations/regions.
To that extent, regional needs and aspirations have to be met which could be done by strengthening regional activities. Each region should independently deal with range of regional issues, undertake location-specific investigations and adaptive trials and work closely with the respective regional organizations unless problems that crop-up are so complex as to require intervention by specialist scientists from the Headquarters.
Expectations were that estates under the management of the Institutes would serve as models for emulation by the industry. This had not happened and it is reported that several of the practices adopted by them are at variance with those recommended by the research Institutes.
Moreover, the purpose of linking these estates with the research institutes had also been to (i) layout field and factory experiments (ii) Serve as testing ground for the Institutes' recommendations and (iii) Generate a surplus for plough back into research. This has also not happened effectively.
It is therefore worth while considering the desirability of entering into a research contract with some established plantation management companies initially for a period of 5 years or so on a pre-determined agenda and cost to ensure the scientists the freedom to undertake research trials with no disability with regard to land, labour materials etc.
These estates many function as the Regional Research Centres for the research institutes. Apart from negating any academic bias that could otherwise have penetrated under the exiting arrangements, this would also provide the opportunity to view research programmes in wider perspective. Interaction with the industry from the very inception would bring the scientists to the practical requirements of the growers.
The foremost asset of the Institutes is its' pool scientists and it is their collective effort that makes or breaks their reputation.
All researchers are assisted in no small measure by the management to be well qualified. The laboratory and equipment are also in good order to render an output commensurate with the needs of the industry.
Yet, it is well known that the full potential of scientists remain unutilised in the absence of participatory approach to fulfil the overall objectives of the Institutes. Leadership and motivation and aspects which will bring the scientists to the practical requirement of the working planter should be explored.
With greater compartmentalization of research, rapid proliferation of experiments and too many bureaucratic directives, the role of the Director has now tended to become more of a coordinator than a leader of a team of scientists. Irrespective of whether such a situation exists elsewhere, this primary function and responsibility must be returned to these Institutes and their Directors who are Chief Executive Officers to provide dynamism and leadership to future research efforts.
Cost-benefit of research
In the ultimate analysis, the issue centres around the extent to which the plantation industry - and indeed, the country - benefits from the operations of these Institutes. During the post-war period it was noted that on certain research outputs, the gain in output until late '60s resulted in an overall cost benefit ratio of 1 : 100.
Not that such a fancy return is ever contemplated but in the current or emerging situation, judging by the parameters established in agricultural research, the plantation industry would be more than satisfied with internal rate of return of 40 to 50 percent on its' investment on research.
It is important to recognize that irrespective of the channel through which the research share of the cess is collected and disbursed, it nevertheless forms part of the industry's cost of production.
This clearly points to an emerging financial crunch and while this has descended on some institutes and yet to descend on others, it is important to take early action. Looking ahead into the present century and beyond, it is suggested that a revised funding concept is mooted and given effect to appropriately for the Sri Lankan plantation industry to move forward.
Based on the emerging needs of the plantation industry, improvements to the conventional style of research management have been discussed with the singular purpose of enhancing the usefulness of the research findings to the industry, a vital factor in the economy of the country.
The writer is a Consultant, National Institute of Plantation Management