} Lalith Abeysinghe: March 2009

Monday, March 16, 2009

The Plantation People in Sri Lanka

The Plantation Community :Who Cares?

There are Tamils in the middle of the country too, not only in the North and East. They are over one million, concentrated mostly in the Central Province. They call Plantation Community. The Central Province is now in the news, but not the Tamils live in the middle of the country. Normally after an election, the people used to talk about the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) and Up Country Peoples Front (UCPF), as, Mr. Thondaman and Mr. Chandrasekaran the leaders of the CWC and UCPF respectively, used to bargain with the "main parties' to form the government.

At the PC election, the CWC and the UCPF contested under the UPFA list and supported the government. It revealed, according to the results, that the CWC and the UCPF could not able to play a significant role and not contributed much to win the respective electorates. Instead the plantation Tamils have gone away from them. Mr. Vijitha Herath the Propaganda Secretary of JVP pointed out that the Tamils have not given their votes to the government, despite the fact that the CWC and UCPF were with the government.

The Tamil people were in the news for the last three decades, but not the Plantation People. Neither the people in the country nor the government talks about these people, though they are Tamil.

Let us briefly look at the story of the Plantation People.

They were first brought by the British in early 1810 to work in the Coffee plantation, followed by the Tea in late 1820s. By 1931, there were 693,000 Indian origin plantation people in the country. They have contributed immensely to develop this country and to earn the much needed foreign exchange in very difficult terrain and conditions for the last two centuries.

After the independence there was a concern of the ruling party (UNP) over these people. It was noted that these people have voted in favor of LSSP in the elections. By one of the first acts soon after the independence, No 14 of 1948, the Citizenship Act, the then government denied the citizenship for all the plantation people. It was followed by another act to deny the voting rights too.

They were suddenly become "stateless people". It is very hard to understand the agony link to the issue, by the people who have "citizenship". It was a problem for the country and to India as well. The both governments signed a Pact, the Sirima -Shasthri Pact in 1964 to settle this problem. There was a huge 'repatriation' process after signing the Pact. For both of the country, it was just a number game. The one page pact decided to distribute 975,000 people (the then population) in 7: 4 ratios to both countries. According to this agreement India agreed to take 525,000 people and Sri Lanka agreed to give citizenship to 300,000 people. The remaining 150,000 was subjected to a separate agreement later. The repatriation process is to be completed with in 15 years from the date of the agreement signed, which is 30 October 1964. There was no choice, 525,000 people have to go whether they like or not. The pact was signed with out consulting these people or their representatives. Some people left for India and the process stopped half way due to the war intensified between the government and the LTTE in mid 1970s.

At least some of them got citizenship!. Ironically, the people settled in India called "Sri Lankan Tamils" and the people settled in Sri Lanka called "Indian Tamils"!, which speaks volumes.

As the agreed process was not completed, the successive governments 'gave' citizenship to 'all' the people only as election pledge. Still some of these people do not possess proper documents to 'prove' their citizenship.

Then there was the famous "ethnic problem" comes in to the scene. It appears by the term it self, it has some thing to do with the ethnicity, more specifically Tamils. Though the Plantation people are Tamils, they were not a party to the problem. They became a party only when the violence happened in the country. They occurred as a retaliation or respond to the acts committed against the main ethnic group, the Sinhalese, by the arms groups of the North. The Plantation Tamils were subjected to violence. They had nothing to with the Northern Tamils and their struggle for a separate state.

There are several reasons for these people to not associate with this struggle. First, the Plantation Tamils maintain a different approach to gain their rights. They are mainly through 'satyagraha" and industrial actions ranging from token strikes to the full scale strikes. They had a working class tradition of "fighting", though they are basically agricultural workers. Secondly, the Plantation community is no way in agreement for a 'separate state' solution. It was not possible geographically, culturally and occupationally.
Thirdly, the Plantation Tamils felt that they will get a second class treatment from the Northern Tamils. Fourthly, they tried become part of the government by offering their support to form the government. There were lots of bargaining and they were able to get some resources to settle some of the problems face by the plantation people. As a result, the Plantation community was not taken or considered as a party even in the discussions to solve the 'ethnic problem'. They were left out from the 'ethnic problem'!, though they are Tamils.

The government is now preparing give a 'political solution' to the 'ethnic problem' soon, after defeating the LTTE militarily. It seems that the parties concerned are trying to seek solutions to the 'ethnic problem', especially the problems encountered by the Tamil speaking people.

What is the place these Tamil Plantation People get in these discussions and in the process? Are these discussions intended to solve the problems of the Plantation Tamils too? The problems range from getting very basic facilities to participation in governing. At the very first are they a party to these discussions? Secondly, if it so, who will represent them in the discussions? Both the questions have similar importance.

In a survey conducted among the plantation people in 2003 by the writer (with S. A. Ramya), the following questions were asked. The responses got from them indicated here as well.

Should the Plantation People be represented at the Peace process? (Yes 87%, No 11%, No response 1%)
Which Party should represent the Plantation People at the Peace process? (CWC 47%, UCPF 20%, UNP 21%, PA 2%, other 10%)
Which Party will best speak for the Plantation Sector at the Peace process? (CWC 43%, UCPF 21%, UNP 19%, JVP 4%, LTTE 2%, PA 1%)

This was in 2003. By 2009 the whole picture has changed.

Thondaman and Chandrasekaran are loosing their grounds. Both CWC and UCPF were originated from the Trade Union movement. A decade ago most of the plantation people are estate workers, thus almost all the workers are the members of one of the Trade Unions.

Now there is an increase of the 'non estate worker' category in the plantation. Many people work outside the estate and they live in the estate. Most of the youngsters are now 'educated'. It was not the same a decade ago. The parents want their children to study. Earlier, the parents themselves send their children to work as domestic servants or in boutiques and shops in the town. Most of the youngsters do not like to work in the estates. There are no job opportunities for the educated youth with in the estates. They tend to go out from the estate. Hence, these "non workers" do not automatically become members of the two parties, the CWC and the UCPF.

The plantation people have showed the reluctance of being a "plantation person". They look for more "national" status. It mostly appears in the youth. Hence there is deterioration in the 'local', 'regional' and 'sectoral" politics.

There is an ambition with the people for mainstreaming the plantation community. Some time ago the Plantation People were segregated. There were " estate schools", "estate dispensary", "estate cooperative", "estate lines" "estate roads", "estate people" and Estates"!, indicating a "different kind".

The Plantation people now have broken this segregation with maintaining an immense patience. Most of them have shown the readiness of being a Sri Lankan, but not an "Excluded Plantation Person" as such. It includes the same opportunities in education, employment, status, dignity, land and freedom.

The country should not waste this opportunity and should not wait for them to fight for their rights in a different way.

Lalith Abeysinghe.