Will the Plantation Community Finally See the Light at the End of the Tunnel?
The presence and significance of the Tamils of Indian Origin living in the upcountry, particularly in the tea and rubber plantation sectors, remains a prominent topic of discussion in Sri Lanka. The ‘Naam 200’ event held on 2 October, organised by the longstanding trade union, the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), emphasised the urgent need for substantial revolutionary changes in terms of rights and the recognition of the Upcountry Indian Origin Tamils who arrived in the island two centuries ago.
The Upcountry Tamil people, who migrated from South India and reside in the Central, Sabaragamuwa, and Southern Provinces, have been making substantial contributions to the national economy for approximately two centuries. Their collective contribution represents about one-third of the total income generated by the plantation sector, so to speak.
That’s the very reason President Ranil Wickremesinghe at the ‘Naam 200’ emphasised the Government’s commitment to fully integrate the Tamil people living in the Hill Country into Sri Lankan society and that sums up everything.
The community, comprising approximately 115,000 in the plantation sector, out of a total of 1.3 million in Sri Lanka, continues to be a topic of discussion, as in today’s corporate world, the fundamental values of empathy and concern for one’s fellow countrymen are very much alive, and the focus on the well-being of the vulnerable and disadvantaged remains of utmost importance and holds great significance.
Ceylon Tea has flourished, but the individuals who play a pivotal role in its success often go unacknowledged has been the claim by all communities of Sri Lanka. While successive governments have made some efforts to address this issue, there is still a long journey ahead to achieve some of the targeted issues pertaining to the lives of this community in the Hill Country.
‘Naam 200’, held at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium, was brimming with Upcountry Tamils of Indian Origin, who gathered to commemorate and reflect on the journey and lives of the Tamil Indian Origin community arriving in Sri Lanka.
The 200-year commemoration of this community has witnessed numerous events organised by various trade unions and upcountry politicians. The prominent one was the padayatra from Talaimannar to Matale. The community has actively participated in all these events humbly. They were in Colombo to explore what the future holds for them, this time too at the ’Naam 200’.
The event drew plantation workers from various plantations and it was a full house. The crowd enthusiastically gathered at the indoor stadium to listen to the country’s leadership and esteemed guests from India, such as Finance Minister of India, Nirmala Sitharaman, and K. Annamalai, the President of the BJP in Tamil Nadu.
Minister Jeevan Thondaman, who has openly expressed to this newspaper his desire to witness a revival in the plantation sector and the rightful acknowledgment of the community’s contributions, may have been pleasantly surprised to see their strong support at the stadium. He thanked them all for coming to the event and assured them that he would continue to address the issues related to his community.
Since assuming leadership from his father, Arumugam Thondaman, who undeniably fought for various rights of the people while pursuing his own political goals, Junior Thondaman also continues to be a powerful and vocal figure among the young and the old plantation workers. He has passionately asserted that the upcountry people are no less significant than anyone else in the country, and their recognition is now more apparent than ever before.
At the ‘Naam 200’, the Minister said without social progress there is no economic progress and he also called upon the entire community to change their mindset to bring about a change in society and to be recognised.
‘Still much to be fought for’
The Minster earlier expressed his desire to pursue a career in law and indicated that he does not plan to remain in politics for an extended period. Further, he candidly admitted that his father had been ‘misled’ on certain aspects of his work, a realisation he, as his son, has also come to understand. In an interview with this newspaper several months ago, he emphasised that while those past circumstances are behind them, there is still much to be fought for, and he has willingly assumed the responsibility of carrying that mantle and implementing it.
During his recent visit to the UK, the young minister engaged with British Parliamentarians and shed light on the challenges faced by the plantation community. He eloquently recounted their historical struggles, the substantial cultural and economic contributions they’ve made, and the enduring spirit of resilience that characterises this community. He also underscored the steps being taken to enhance living conditions and opportunities for the plantation community, including the launch of a new land and housing rights programme, coinciding with the 200-year commemoration since their arrival in Sri Lanka.
The guest of the event, Indian Finance Minister Sitharaman, highlighted the remarkable USD
1 billion revenue generated by this community through the tea industry. It is evident that a significant transformation is necessary, she said. Minister Sitharaman also emphasised the substantial contributions of the Tamil people from the Hill Country to the Sri Lankan economy and expressed her willingness to cooperate with the Government’s efforts to recognise and secure their rights.
President Wickremesinghe, addressing the ‘Naam 200’ event, emphasised the Government’s commitment to moving the country forward by uniting all its citizens. He underlined the Government’s policy is to uphold the rights of all Sri Lankan citizens, regardless of their background, with the ultimate goal of creating a developed Sri Lanka through inclusive collaboration.
During the event, President Wickremesinghe, along with Indian Finance Minister Sitharaman, inaugurated the foundation stone for a project supported by Indian aid to construct 10,000 houses in the lower part of Mount Vernon Estate, Dimbula, Kotagala. Further, they virtually inaugurated a new auditorium and computer unit at the Hatton Vocational Training Centre and distributed school equipment to students.
The President expressed his gratitude to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi for contributing to Sri Lanka’s financial stability and commended the support provided for the successful event.
President Wickremesinghe also announced the integration of the community into Sri Lankan society, ensuring equal rights in terms of employment, land rights, and the right to education. He revealed the formation of a committee, led by the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, which discussed three key proposals.
Moreover, the President expressed empathy for the challenges the plantation community faces. He fondly recollected his own days as a member of a trade union, working alongside the late Saumyamoorthy Thondaman, who represented the CWC.
The President revealed a plan to transform plantation workers into out-growers, allowing them to supply tea to factories and own portions of tea estates, similar to small and medium-scale tea plantations in the South. “Regional plantation companies will be asked to outsource tea plucking to workers, which will eliminate the existing plantation system, transforming them into tea smallholders with ownership of the land,” added the President.
Addressing housing issues, he noted that upcountry Tamils do not have plots of land and committed to providing 10 perches of land to each family and issuing land deeds. Additionally, he emphasised the importance of improving education, promising to explore Minister Thondaman’s educational proposals and striving for equal education opportunities for the upcountry Tamil community.
The President expressed that these proposals would be implemented and he had gained the support of many plantation political representatives, as well as the Prime Minister, to advance these initiatives. He acknowledged India’s contribution by welcoming 10,000 people from the upcountry Tamil community.
Accordingly, the Cabinet of Ministers agreed to the resolution made by the President to implement the identified programmes to improve the living conditions of this community through the Ministry of Plantation and other relevant government bodies.
Discussing some of the issues related to the plantation workers, it is imperative to highlight the challenges faced by women workers and others overall.
Plantation workforce is predominantly female
Mathavakala Mathavan, National Project Coordinator at Free Trade Zone and General Services Employees’ Union, has pointed out that the plantation workforce is predominantly female.
These women typically commence their workday at 8:00 a.m. and continue until 5:00 p.m., which includes a lunch break. However, at times, depending on the production targets, female workers may work from 8:00 a.m. to 2:00 p.m. without a lunch break, labouring continuously for six hours. The wage structure is determined by the collective bargaining agreement of trade unions and Regional Plantation Companies, where a worker can earn Rs 900 per day if they work for 18 days in a month. If the number of working days falls below 18, the wage drops to Rs 750. Following a recent wage increase, the total income is now Rs 1,000. However, due to limited working days, the actual earnings remain constrained.
Mathavan further highlights the challenging living conditions in the plantation sector. The housing patterns, known as line rooms, were introduced during the colonial era. These line rooms are barracks-type structures, providing only around 200 square feet of space for an entire family. They lack proper ventilation, offer no privacy for grown-up children, and often suffer from overcrowding due to larger families with dependent parents. In the plantation sector, 185,533 families, totalling a population of 777,730, reside in 163,580 housing units/line rooms. The majority of these line rooms are over 100 years old, and approximately 70 per cent of them are in dilapidated condition Self-owned houses among the plantation community are estimated to be as low as 10.2 per cent, with the rest living in line rooms owned by plantation companies. Shockingly, nearly 13,000 families do not even have line rooms and are forced to live in temporary huts.
Further, she points out that there is a clear issue of gender discrimination and labour exploitation, as male workers working from 8:00 a.m. to 1:00 p.m. receive the same rate of wages as female workers. This not only reflects gender bias, but also constitutes a form of exploitation. Additionally, decent working conditions are largely neglected for plantation workers. Basic facilities like toilets in the fields are lacking, access to drinking water is inadequate, and female workers often endure ill-treatment by their supervisors (known as “kankanis”). These workers have to walk long distances to reach their work locations, exposing them to various health hazards. Occupational safety is also a major concern as they face threats such as animal attacks and inclement weather while working, resulting in physical and mental stress, which is evident in their emaciated appearance.
The entire plantation sector isn’t solely under the purview of Jeevan Thondaman or the CWC. There are other influential figures, including versatile MPs and human rights activists such as Mano Ganesan, Vadivel Suresh, Palani Digambaram, S. Radhakrishnan, and many more, who have made substantial contributions. Their potential for impact is even greater if they unite their voices. Jeevan Thondaman has issued a call to all those who wish to uplift the community to come together. This call has been resonating for some time, and it’s high time to collectively advocate for the rights of the people of Sri Lanka, setting aside individual political objectives.
Notably, members of the Tamil Diaspora also participated in the event and expressed their willingness to contribute to housing upgrades and the rebuilding of lives in any way possible. A Canadian citizen of Indian origin from Sri Lanka, Subash Sundarraj, who is the Founder and CEO of the World Action Foundation, has taken the initiative to develop the Nayapana Estate into a meticulously-designed model village. His focus is on infrastructure development, skill enhancement, income generation opportunities, and the promotion of tourism in this estate. More individuals may join in uplifting the estate workers, ultimately alleviating the burden on the Government and regional plantation companies.
By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan