} Lalith Abeysinghe: Sathyarani: Blossomed, yet rooted

Monday, April 18, 2011

Sathyarani: Blossomed, yet rooted

Sathyarani: Blossomed, yet rooted

“We have to put more efforts to make the Plantation people aware of their rights. They in fact trapped in a viscous circle. The very environment that they are in preventing them coming out from this fate. The ‘Plantation Set-up’ has made these people to live in poorer conditions, which is same in all the plantation set-ups in the world, whether they are tea, cocoa or coffee. Even though the village people are poor, they have the sense of ‘freedom’ in their minds. They at least ‘enjoy’ some sort of belongingness to their own community. But, the Plantation People though they live in Sri Lanka for generations, they still live as ‘strangers’ and alienated from the other people. Hence we have to involve more with these people to facilitate to get them out of this trap. It is still a very difficult task as these people in this situation for at least two centuries”, said Mr. Prabath Kumara, the Director of Future in Our Hands (FIOH) a Social Action Organization work in Baddulla, Sri Lanka

Rightly so: The situation of the Plantation People compare to the village and urban people lagging behind in every aspects of the human and social life.

The situation of the Plantation People

The Origin and the history

The Plantation People in Sri Lanka originally brought from Sothern India by the British in1820 s to work mainly in the Tea Plantations. By 1931 there were 693,000 such people brought from India and use them in establishing Plantation Industry in the country. They were used to clear the then thick virgin jungles and turn them to the present day ‘beautiful Tea plantations. They have labored immensely for the development of the Tea Industry, thus the country in very tough and unfavorable environment and had to deal with harsh weather conditions.

Immediately after the country gained ‘Independence’ in 1948, the then government brought the ‘Citizenship Act’ in the same year and denied the citizenship for the Plantation People who couldn’t ‘prove’ their citizenship rights. They suddenly become ‘stateless’ and lost all the benefits that a citizen could enjoy including the voting rights.

Under the Sirima-Shasthri Pact signed in 1964 between the Prime Ministers of Ceylon and India decided the fate of then numbering 975,000 ‘stateless people’ and agreed to accept 300,000 and 525,000 people by Ceylon and India respectively. The rest 150,000 people were subjected to a separate agreement. The whole processes of ‘Repatriation’ of the ‘Indian people’ and to offer citizenship to the other were expected to complete within 15 years. The armed conflict started between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Ealam (LTTE) and the Government forces disrupted this process. As a result, the Sri Lankan government offered citizenship to all the remaining people live in Sri Lanka in 1982, though the ‘paper work’ still has to be completed.

The Hardships

The Plantation People (about 1,050,000) record the worse social indicators in the country. The literacy rate, infant mortality rate, the lifespan, the malnutrition rate, passes at GCE O/L and A/L examinations and the University entrances of the Plantation People record the worst figures in the country. The ‘ownership’ of land in the country is the lowest among the Plantation Community. The wages of the Plantation workers are the lowest as well in the country.

The Plantation People were subjected to violent racial attacks at many times as a result of the ethnic tension prevailed in the country, though they were not a party to the claim of a separate state by LTTE.

After even centuries, majority of them still remain as plantation laborers. Most of them confined to the Tea Estate where they live and work. They still work in unfavorable conditions and there were many efforts taken to improve their situation by various groups including Social Action Groups and Trade Unions.

“I wanted to be an engineer, when I was at school and my sister Komadi wanted to be a Teacher”, said Sathyarani, 23 years old, an Estate Worker at Queens Town Estate, Baddulla. Her father was a watcher in the same estate and died in 2002. Her mother is also an Estate worker. She had two elder sisters and the elder brother, got married and lives elsewhere. Sathyarani now lives with her mother and her younger sister Komadi. Sathyarani and her family faced with a very sad incident, when her younger brother 17 years old died after a prolonged illness in 2009. They still suffer from the untimely demise of their younger brother.

Sathyarani family lives in a ‘line room’ provided by the estate. The line “room”, in fact the ‘house’ of these workers, in a double barrack type block consists of twenty ‘Line Rooms’ on the both sides. The ‘line room’ is the ‘house ‘for the workers provided by the Estate Management. The ‘house’ is basically an 8x10 sq. feet room with a small 5x 10 verandah, which usually they use for the kitchen. The ‘house’ has no windows, as three sides are covered with the walls of the other ‘houses’. The 8 x 10 house is the place for everything. Sathyarani’s family was an ‘average plantation family’, with parents and six children. They all have to live, eat, study, sleep and do everything else in the 8 x 10 ‘house’.

“I studied at the Estate School up to grade 5 and went to the Haliela Tamil School in the town. I was only managed to pass five subjects at the GCE O/L exam. Then I went work in a small factory in Colombo as we faced with lots of economic hardships. I had to come back to look after my younger brother who fall sick, as nobody was around. Sadly my brother died and mother also fallen sick. As she cannot go to work every day, I decided to go to work as an Estate Worker, though it was a very hard decision. We all as a family was very depressed and we felt that all of our dreams were shattered. The situation was unbearable. We really faced with lots of hardships. We were wondering how we survived”.

“I very much remember, in 2007, Mydili akka, (akka means ‘sister’ and it uses only for the people who are very close to each other) from FIOH visited our house. Mydili akka was a Field Officer of FIOH. She first sat with us and listened to our story. Nobody listened to our plight before. By this time my brother was sick and we were facing with lots of economic hardships. She told us not to be isolated and advised us to form a Small Group (SG). So I and my sister Komadi formed a group with 10 people (8 women and 2 men) who live in our line. Mydili akka instructed us to collect 20 Rupees from the ‘members’ of the group and gave a ‘pass book’ to enter the cash received. It was a real opening, we realized, when looked back. We, together with Mydili akka formed 10 such groups in our estate, Queens Town”.

“We meet every month, had a chat, discuss some important matters, collect money, involve and help with whatever work of a member family and we felt that we were ‘engaged’ in some useful activity. We were participated in various kinds of ‘training and awareness creation programs’, ‘exchange programs’ and various other engagements. Earlier we used to work and work round the clock. We couldn’t find any spare time. But with the formation of the ‘small groups’, we were able to give some time even for the community work. May be, that kind of thinking was not in our mindset earlier. We had different names for our 10 groups. It gives us a feeling that these groups were ours. We took decisions, though small ones in the beginning. Mydili akka and the training given by FIOH encouraged us to take full control and the ownership of these groups. We decided to get all the 10 groups together and form an organization with the guidance of FIOH. Then we formed the Integrated Community Organization (ICO) for our estate and we call it “Kalaimagal Makkal Abhivirudi Ameyppu”. We feel so happy. Most of the members were women. I became the Secretary of our ICO in 2008.We discussed various issues related to our life, our future and the situation of the estate. We were able to get lots of help from FIOH and from the other government organizations for the work in the estate. Earlier we didn’t know that, such kind of helps could be taken from the government organizations. The exposures and the awareness creation programs conducted by FIOH helped us to open our eyes.

We decided to open a Pre School in the estate. My sister Komadi and Nalayini were selected on merit to be the teachers of the Pre School. They underwent a thorough training under an Instructress attached to the Education Department. I really felt very happy for two reasons. The first is that we got a Pre School for our Estate. The second is that my sister was able to be a Teacher, and fulfill her childhood dream. I am also feeling very happy, as everybody is praising the performances and the standards maintain by the Pre School. There are about fifty children studying at the Pre School now.”

“Normally I go with Mydili akka to visit other groups also. She trained us in many things, such as keeping accounts of the group’s money, keeping minutes of the group meetings, how to conduct a meeting , how to speak in a meeting and so on. I often go to Baddulla now to attend various meetings, discussions and training. There we used to meet lots of other people from other areas, villages and other estates. Earlier we do not know anybody out side of our own estate. Now, when we come to Baddulla there were lots of people who we know. We now know even the government officers, as we have met them for getting some support for activities in our estate or as we met to make complains about the shortcomings of our estate. We meet even the Superintendent of our estate to ‘discuss’ various community problems and needs. They know what we do now and they listened to us and give whatever help they could. Earlier only the Trade Union leaders used to meet the Superintendent and we used to tell the Trade Union leaders of our problems. They all were men. Now because of the ICO we, most of us are women deal with the authorities. “

“I used to reflect on my mother’s life. She too was an Estate worker. But she didn’t have any of these opportunities. We remember she worked round the clock at home and in the estate. She hardly had gone out of the estate. I feel so sorry about her”.

“One thing happened in my life, rather in my family, I never forget. That is the illness and the untimely demise of my younger brother. We all were in a state of shock. But, hundreds if not thousands of people were gathered around our house on the funeral day. The whole estate had not witness that size of gathering earlier. Even though we were very sad, we also realize the enormous support we get, just because of being with the people through SGs, ICOs and CLO. It was a tremendous strength, when we were really in need”.

“Another thing happened. All the ICO s used to meet at the FIOH office and eventually had formed an apex body, the Cluster organization (CLO). As there are many ICOs in this apex body, we call it The Plantation Community Development Forum (PCDF)[1]. This is an unbelievable situation. All the money that FIOH got for the work of Small Groups, ICOs and CLO is now managed by us! We plan our work. The money is transferred to our (CLO/PCDF) Bank account. In June this year (2010) I was elected by the representatives of ICOs as the Secretary of CLO. First of all I couldn’t believe it. I remember the every second of this event and in a way I was surprised too. I alone with the Treasurer and the Chairmen of the PCDF, they too from the different ICOs, authorize and sign the cheques to obtain money for the work. I was only an ordinary estate worker. Though I had dreams to come up with my education, the harsh realities that we were encountering made them shattered. I was literally confined to the estate earlier. I live, work and did everything in the estate itself. We had no much connection with the outside world. But everything was changed with the visit made by Mydili akka to our home. The whole thing, when I reflected, a wonderful story. My sister Komadi and my mother too help and encourage me, as we have already witnessed the usefulness of such engagements”.

Komadi, her sister intervenes and said, “My sister and I contributed to the expenses of our home and now we manage everything. We want our mother to feel ‘free’ of the affairs of our home.We go to town on the pay day and bring most of the food stuffs for the whole month. It cost about Rs 5000-6000”. How much you contribute? I asked a question, one should not suppose to ask though! “I give Rs 2000, and keep another 2000 for my needs and save another 2000. I get only 4000-6000 per month. I also save some money for another thing, she said. What is that for? I asked another unwanted question. First she smiled, and then took couple of seconds, with a deep sense of emotion, she said, “I have collected Rs 2500 so far and I am going to buy a ring for my sister for her wedding!

Compiled by

Lalith Abeysinghe



[1] This is a unique initiative by FIOH and first in this kind in the Plantation sector. FIOH, with this initiative has taken steps to hand over all the responsibilities, the ownership, decision making authority, and the available funds to the PCDF. The ‘beneficiaries’ of the Plantation Project have now become the owners and the implementers of the program. FIOH is helping them in ‘capacity building’ and remain as a mentor. This initiative will certainly helps to take the so called ‘target group’ or beneficiaries in the Plantations to new heights.

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