By Hemasiri Perera and Prasanna Kotalawala –
Scarcely two decades had lapsed after the surrender of the Kandyan kingdom when the trek of the Indian Tamils commenced in 1817 to 1880, which was no less arduous, cruel and degrading than what the American Negro was subjected to in the bowels of slave ships that traversed the Atlantic at this time.
The rape of the forests of Lanka had commenced and the slave drivers to be, in the guise of Head Kanganies sent out by the colonial land grabbers were scouring the poorest villages of South India for human beasts of burden to become virtual slaves on the plantations of what was then Ceylon way back in 1862 and still continue to be the miserable victims of the present estate management whose ulterior purpose appears to be is to own these valuable lands at the expense of the existing crops.
Once craftily enticed it was a short sea crossing via the Palk straight and a long land trek across the then arid mostly abandoned northern central portion of the island to the ill gotten holdings of the colonial masters in the central hills. The survival rates of families that undertook this hazardous journey is appalling to recall. Not only did they succumb to the scourges of cholera and smallpox they brought along with them but also to malaria that was rampant in the region and also exposed to the dangers of wild beast and poisonous serpents. They were forced to cross to arrive at the more salubrious hills of Matale and Kandy and the further up the mountains to Nuwara Eliya and beyond. The colonial masters were allocated land free of charge to set up their plantations and achieved a double whammy because these unfortunate humans decimated the indigenous populations of the North Central Province (NCP), which survived after numerous invasions by eking out a living on chena and tank bed cultivation on reservoirs breached by previous invaders of the island!
Thus began the tragic story of the Indian plantation slave worker the details of which are too long, numerous and sordid to be vented in a short epistle as this.
In the post-colonial era large number of these plantation workers who have lived most of their lives in the estates was forced to repatriate back to India in 1964 under the Sirima–Shastri Pact (also known as the Indo-Ceylon Agreement). It has to be grudgingly admitted, that the only ray of hope that they ever glimpsed is when JR Jayewardene in 1980s gave those who remained citizenship to gain absolute political power and hardly out of sympathy and which power has spiraled the country in to a black hole! This legislation however, enabled these workers voting rights and a guaranteed wage system.
The successive governments have continued to overlook one of the most important workforces without whose tireless and disciplined labour this entire process would grind to a halt.
Suffice it to say that enough of them survived for almost two centuries to enable us to trace the ignominy of the ostracism that goes on to this day.
Currently over one million workers are directly or indirectly employed in the tea plantations. Out of this a large proportion of the workforce is women who are burdened with excessive demands to contribute to plantation work load in the field and factory. Although these workers’ contribution to the country’s export revenue which is considerable, benefits have not trickled down to them and continue to be exploited since the colonial times.
Workers are paid a basic wage of Rs 500 and a price share supplement of Rs 30 a day, an attendance allowance of Rs 60 a day and a productivity incentive Rs 140 per day. Those who achieve a daily target of 18 kg of plucking are entitled to an over kilo payment of Rs 30 for each additional kilogram. However, as a result of continuous struggle by workers and Trade Unions a two year Collective Bargaining Agreement between Regional Plantation Companies and Trade Unions was signed in 2019 resulting in wage revision. The basic wage was raised up to Rs 700 and the Price Share Supplement (PSS) payment to Rs 50.
In spite of all these wage hikes and revisions the estate sector continues to lag behind the rest of the country in measures of development. Hence, on the plantations mayhem reigns! Not only is the worker denied a living wage and discrimination between genders is rampant. Women work longer hours often exposed to vagary of changing weather while the men get away with pro-rata based work. Furthermore, the existing patriarchal culture prevailing in the plantations where men continue to control all income coming to the family has exacerbated the situation.
This situation is further compounded by rampant alcoholism that has risen its ugly head due to successive governments post 1977 promoting the vice to benefit bar owners who are political stooges. This has altered the whole social structure of plantation life with chronic absenteeism and domestic violence in particular violence against women skyrocketing to uncontrollable levels resulting in severe consequences.
In addition to the wages workers in most estates receive benefits such as access to meager medical clinic, maintenance of estate housing, provision of water to the estate houses, creche, and tea rations etc.
Estate housing consists of a row of small houses, each more similar in size to a single room that share a roof which were established during the colonial era and hardly any development had taken place over the years. However, let us face the fact the worker is not even the owner of the house often only a barrack type hovel they live in. They neither have a permit or deed to improve their abode and scarcely able to say the tree outside the doorstep is their own.
These cramped living conditions in the houses have also threatened the health of the workers and their children. In addition, most estates don’t have proper sanitary facilities for the inhabitants.
Due to the fact that estates and the roads come under the estate property which is private land do not come under Pradeshiya Sabha Act resulting individual houses without addresses for basic services as trivial as postal services which hinder simple communication with police, electoral office and other government departments for which they need to walk fair distances.
The Tripartite Organization namely Plantation Housing development Trust (PHDT) formed in 2002, which consists of Government of Sri Lanka, Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) and Trade Unions formed to implement social development programmes has failed in their services. Its main objective remains providing jobs for political lackeys and goons.
In modern times the trade union leaders who were supposed to represent these hapless people have perched on their shoulders and ascended the political platform and have been feathering their own nests after 1977. This is one of the greatest betrayals of the plantation worker. These treacherous union leaders, it is sad to say have been assisted by the plantation executives appointed under political patronage whose numbers grew to alarming proportions with progressive governments that culminated with what is now the RPC FIASCO!
Twenty four Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) were established in 1994/95 primarily to improve the management of the estates with investments. These estates which are national assets were leased out to them for a measly sum of Rs500/= per annum per estate which were valued at millions of US Dollars. But all what they did was rape and plunder them by diverting the profits to their subsidiary companies without reinvesting in the estates. They even went to the extent of selling lightning arrestors installed by the British companies for the safety of resident estate personnel for millions of US Dollars. Their sole objective is to own these valuable lands at the expense of the crop cultivated on these lands.
Now the despicable RPCs are busy inserting the last nail in the coffin. We as ex-planters see that it is imperative to heal the work force, entice them back on to the estates by offering them every possible incentive the least of all, a decent livable basic wage and last but not least by saving them from the biggest community of parasitic leeches to invade the plantations — the RPC scum!