} Lalith Abeysinghe: March 2010

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

The Fate of the Non-worker Category of Plantation Community of

The Fate of the Non-worker Category of Plantation Community of
Sri Lanka

Most of the people in the country do not know much if not any thing about the Plantation Community. They were living in this country for last two centuries. Hence it is better to say something about them before come to discuss the “non worker category”.

The Plantation Community, which is now nearly one million people, is one of the marginalized communities in the country. Originally they were brought here by the British in early 1800, first to work in the coffee plantation and then the Tea. The Plantation Tamil Community contributed immensely to the development of the country and earned much needed foreign currencies during the last two centuries. The incomes from the plantations were the prime earner of the foreign exchange and now second only to the earning sent by the migrant workers mainly working in the Middle East countries.

The whole history of the plantation people was a pathetic one. From the very beginning they were treated inhumanly. Still the workers are working in a semi slavery set up, compare to the other industrial workforce work in other parts of the country.

If run through the history of these people, the group responsible for getting them here, the British and handling them for the last two centuries owe them a great deal. The journey from South India to Thalemannar and then walking through rough jungles to Hill country itself was a terrific one. Many reported died on the way. As they reach the work sites, one could imagine that how they survived in the difficult terrain with thick virgin jungles in freezing climate. They came from a warm climate in South India. It should have been a very difficult situation for them to adapt to the new situation.

They were soon able to convert the thick jungles to “beautiful” tea estates. They were provided with mud huts to live. They were also laboring to construct the Rail and Roadways from Colombo to hill country. With out any hesitance, one has to admit that this plantation Tamil Community sacrificed their whole life and their future generations for the betterment of the plantation industry as well as of the country.

In 1948, soon after the 'independence', the then UNP led government introduced two acts in the parliament. By these two Acts, the plantation people were first denied the citizenship and then the franchise. They instantly become “stateless”. The problem of “stateless” and their status were not “settled” until 1964, till Ceylon and the Indian governments signed an agreement. The two governments led by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranayke and Lal Bahadur Shasthri entered in to an agreement with out consulting the plantation community or their representatives. The agreement was known as the “Sirima – Shasthri Pact”. It deals with the fate of “Indian Origin” people live in then Ceylon, working mainly in the Tea Plantations, numbered 975000. The arrangement was that India agreed to take back 525000 people and Ceylon agreed to give citizenship to 300,000 people. They agreed to come to another agreement later to decide on the fate of the rest of the 150,000 people, who were not covered by the Sirima – Shasthri Pact.

As one writer stated, “the Great Uprooting” was taken place in the plantation as the Tamil plantation people were forcibly sent back to India. The natural families were parted. They again started a journey with out having any idea of the destination. By this time they have lost all the connections with India and with their relations. Imagine they are sending back after 200 years, after six generations!

The whole process was half way interrupted as the fighting between LTTE and Sri Lanka government started in early 1970s. The ferry service was stopped operating from Thalemannar to Dhanuskody.

The plantation community under went with all the changes took place in the plantations over the time. They were originally under the British. The country got the “independence” in 1948. Then they were under the Ceylonese. Nothing much changed in the plantations. In 1970s all most all the Plantations were peopleized. The ownership went to the government and the management of these estates was under taken by two state authorities namely the Sri Lanka State Plantation Cooperation (SLSPC) and the Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB). There were incidences reported that many of the Tamil estate workers were chased out from the estates as the Sinhala people misunderstood the move taken by the government. The move to take all these land from the foreign companies itself was a progressive step. But unfortunately it took an anti Plantation Tamil move too.

Then the Plantations were 'privatized' in early 1990 s. While the 'ownership' remains with the government, the 'management' was 'privatized'. The management of these plantations was taken by twenty three private companies. The plantation community went through all of these experiences, the people and the Trade Unions were not able to involve in these process in any way.

The Plantation community from the very beginning was treated differently. First the British may have thought that it is better to adopt a “divide and rule” policy to safeguard the British interests. The plantation community was virtually locked inside the estates. They provided with all the “facilities” in the estate itself. The cooperative, schools, crèches, dispensary, maternity wards etc. were provided with in the estate itself by the management of the estates. But all those “facilities” were very much inferior to the services rendered by the government for the other people. The plantation community did not come under the state administration and systems with regard to education, medical, transport, welfare, public administration and all the other aspects.

On the other hand the Plantation community was subjected to all the communal violence in the country, though they have nothing to do with the demand for a separate state.

Decade ago almost all the people in the plantation were workers in the estate. They were “looked after” by the Superintendents of the estates. The superintendent whether it was government or private estate, was responsible for these people and he is supposed to look after them.

Earlier the welfare aspects of the worker and their families were looked after by the Social welfare Wing of the Sri Lanka State Plantation Cooperation (SLSPC) and the Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB). Later, especially after the privatization of the estates, the Human Development and Welfare Trust was established and supposed to under take the responsibilities earlier entrusted to the Social Welfare wings of SLSPC and JEDB.

Now there is a new phase emerging in the plantation community. This has rather run into confusion as well. A decade earlier, all the people live in the estates are some how or other connected to the workforce in the estates. The manager/ superintendent or the company was responsible for the workers.

Now there is another new category emerging in the estates. They are the non- workers. They do not work in the estates. They work outside the estates. Nevertheless, they live in the estates as that is their base, 'village' and the birthplace.

It appears that these people belong to nobody, neither to the estate nor to the government. These people are not getting what ever the “facilities” that the “workers” get from the management. The superintendents rightly say that these people are not their responsibility, as they are not the workers in the estate. When it comes to house (lines) allocation, repair of them, water and sanitation, medical facilities, etc these people were not counted.

There are at least three categories of estates now operating in the country. They are the Company owned estates, the State owned estates and the privately owned estates. The vast majority of the people live and works in these estates are the “Indian Origin” Tamil people. There are small portion of Sinhala and Muslim people also working on these estates.

The situation of the estate workers, compare with the other sectors are inferior and pathetic. The national data indicating the literacy rate, health indicators, income levels, education levels speaks volumes in this regard. The most vulnerable set of people are the group live and work in the privately owned estates. Any indicator reveals that they are lagging behind even to the 'plantation workers' who are already in a pathetic situation.

One has to look at the situation of the people live in the ‘privately owned’ estates. The people live and work in the 'privately owned estates' does not come under any authority neither the Government nor the Plantation Trust or the management. There are no Trade Unions in those estates. There are no any Collective Agreements signed between the Employers Federation and the Trade Unions which cover these people.

These people also could consider as the “non workers” simply because that they do not consider as “workers” in any given definitions.

In this context there are two main set of people that have lots of problems just because they happened to be a plantation people. The first set is the people who live in the plantation and work outside of the plantation. They are not entitled to any facilities that are given to the plantation workers by the Plantation Trust or the Management.

The second set is the people who live and work in the ‘privately owned’ estates. These people too not entitled to any facilities given by the Plantation Trust. Although the government agreed to give seven perch of land to the plantation people, these people work on the ‘privately owned estates’ were not covered. It is mainly because, that the owners of the estate have no additional land to distribute among the workers and even they have land they are not willing to donate them for obvious reasons.

As more and more people withdrawing from the plantation related work, this new situation will become a huge problem in the plantation sector. The people live and work in the Privately Owned estates has no entity to look after them. They do not come under any government administration unit as well as the Plantation administration unit. Hence these people once again become “state less” and “status less” in their own country.

Lalith Abeysinghe