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Sunday, 12 May 2013

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Mafia behind refuse tea exports

Tea Board teaming up with police and Customs Department to curb menace:



Saamples of refuse tea ready for export

An STF solider is examining the refused tea

A raided warehouse

Inside an illegal refuse tea processing centre
A pack of refused tea labelled with serial numbers and dates

Sri Lanka is globally renowned for it's quality tea for decades or may be even over centuries. Until recently times it was the leading exporter among the top five countries including Kenya, China, India and Vietnam. The fine blend and flavour generated through entirely different climatic conditions earned a high reputation for Ceylon tea.

But an emerging trend of manufacturing and attempts being made to export substandard tea products or in other words something unsuitable for human consumption is seen of late which has opened the eyes of the law enforcing authorities.

Exporting refuse tea is becoming a growing problem which could damage the country's reputation regarding tea exports. Constant raids and detections carried out recently by the law enforcing authorities such as the Police Special Task Force and the Customs Department had shown that the problem is on the rise.

Moreover attempts were being made by certain illegal groups influenced by powerful individuals to go against the law enforcing authorities and to continue in their activities exposing the fact there is a Mafia encouraging the illegal trade to flourish.

Without a permit

A classic example is the recent incident in Gampola where police tried to raid a lorry transporting a large stock of refuse tea without a permit. Officers of the Central Province Divisional Crime Detective Bureau, a unit only answerable to the DIG of the Central Police stopped a lorry at Buwelikada area. A driver who didn't even have a valid driver's license was taken into custody along with the refuse tea.

The police party escorting the lorry could proceed only a short distance when they were obstructed by an angry mob on two occasions attempted to rob the vehicle and the contraband and succeeded in the end. The police then had to organise reinforcements from several areas to regain the lorry but could apprehend only two suspects. The crowd that obstructed the police were not to be found and it is learnt that they were all part of the same gang plying the illegal trade.

For any variety of tea to qualify for the tea auction it has to meet international standards ISO 3720 monitored by the Sri Lanka Tea Board. The approval of the Tea Board is compulsory and tea could only be sold at the auction where the right price is paid for a kilogram.

Therefore, it is questionable as to how such substandard products like refuse tea has crept into the local and export markets, which many strive to get a hold of. When a kilogram of tea that meets the standards of ISO 3720 is sold between Rs.300 to Rs.400 in the current Tea Auctions, a kilogram of refuse tea is purchased at Rs.30 and is being secretly exported to selected countries and sold at ten times the price it was bought.

There is no need to mention the profit margin earned by exporting refuse tea in this manner.

What is refuse tea

Camellia Sinensis or commonly known as tea and is a plant that grows in tropical and subtropical climates. When pruning the first 1 - 2 inches of the mature leaves are plucked which is called flushes. The first two leaves with a bud is considered as the best part of the plant that is taken to produce black tea.The second level of leaves are considered as brown tea which is more mature and reduced in quality. When the tea leaves are plucked a handful of leaves is taken and this has to be separated in the factory.

Going through a process of withering, rolling, fermenting, drying and grading the finest black tea is collected whereas the left over brown tea will be rejected as refuse tea.

Black tea

Except for a few large scale planters in the country, all the other factories sell refuse tea to small units known as refuse tea processing centres that are mainly situated in Gampola and Ambalangoda areas.

Refuse tea which is a combination of waste tea and a little black tea is processed in these domestic units where the black tea has to be carefully separated from the lot. The rest is considered as crude fibre which has no use and cannot be taken except to be sold as compost or fertiliser or to be destroyed. There is a special license procedure to follow approved by the Sri Lanka Tea Board when handling refuse tea, otherwise it is an offence and one could be brought before Courts. The laws are set up according to the Tea Control Act No 51 of 1957.

Tea Commissioner Sri Lanka Tea Board, Jayantha Edirisinghe told the Sunday Observer that the factories had to inform the Tea Board before they sell their refuse tea and the processing centres had to be registered with having obtained an annual license. Not only that, anybody who is transporting a stock of refuse tea has to hold a valid permit stating from where the stock was taken and where it is transported to.

There are over 300 registered processing units and the authorities believe that many of them have engaged in the trade illegally.

By issuing a license to these units the tea board monitor the quality of black tea extracted from the refuse tea and are also aware of the end product. Illegal traders will take no responsibility in maintaining the quality of refuse tea and export by submitting false documents to the Customs.

Most of the recent instances where refuse tea was found while attempting to export had been declared as fibre dust or used tyres.

Director Customs Revenue Task Force, Mali Piyasena said that they have detected five container loads of refuse tea in two different cases this year weighing upto 80,000 kilograms. The contraband had been declared as fibre dust and were sent from Homagama and Piliyandala areas.

Likewise the STF had detected a series of cases during the first four months of the year where six detections had been conducted in April from the Wellampitiya, Boralesgamuwa, Wattala, Mulleriyawa. Seven raids had been carried out in January, February and March where large stocks weighing up to 30, 000kilograms had been recovered.

The STF and the Customs hand over detected items to the Sri Lanka Tea Board where it is subjected to a special laboratory test to identify the quality of the tea. Whether it is crude fibre or waste or a border line case where a considerable portion of black tea is mixed in the stock which could be processed again.

A special procedure is followed in labelling these samples before sending to the laboratory as an attempt was made by one illegal trader to influence lab assistants to get his stock cleared by soliciting a bribe.

Mr. Edirisinghe said unlike earlier, the Tea Board is now linked with the Police, the STF and the Customs to control this illegal trade that could tarnish the country's image. The Tea Board will launch a special unit with a hot line in the near future where the public could supply information relating to any unlawful activity.

STF Commandant DIG W M C Ranawana (Box)

STF Commandant DIG W M C Ranawana told the Sunday Observer information gathered by the STF intelligence unit, organise detections which will be handled by its staff.

He said the STF is closely monitoring the refuse tea crisis which is a well-organised crime at the moment. Two main areas are recognised as the collection points in upcountry and low country teas.

The STF has received information that special 'tea auctions' tea are being held in Ambalangoda for low country refuse tea and Kadugannawa for upcountry refuse tea. The refuse tea collected from these areas are sent to these main collection points.

Intelligence units are studying the origin of refuse tea

and who are the buyers were and the final destination where it end up.

Samples of the contraband seized in raids will be sent to the Tea Board where they conduct laboratory tests and issue a report whether it is refuse tea or not.

Legal action will be taken following this report and sometimes the recoveries are handed over to the CID for further investigations. He said a special unit in the CID also assist the STF in conducting joint operations.

It is learnt that certain groups keep on changing warehouses to store refuse tea to maintain the a low profile.

Permits are required to possess or transport refuse tea and anybody who fails to produce a valid permit would be apprehended, DIG Ranawana said.

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