By Jehan Perera –
Addressing the Ceylon Chamber of Commerce, President Mahinda Rajapaksa explained to the country’s business leaders what his government had achieved in the past nine years. His government had eliminated the LTTE and created an environment in which business led development was possible. In addition, the government had invested massively in infrastructure. Government leaders frequently report on the rapid strides that the country is taking to achieve its development goals. They are able to show concrete evidence in the form of visible assets that include new expressways and many greatly improved roads, the newly opened Independence Square shopping arcade, and the new metropolis of Hambantota.
But there is a problem with the government’s development. This is its compartmentalization. Some sectors of society are prospering. They are rich, articulate and at the cutting edge of progress. But there are even larger sectors in the country, and of its people, that have been left out. This is a recipe for inequity and injustice, and for polarization and bitterness as its fruit. An example would be the hill country where the Tamils of recent Indian origin, also known as estate Tamils live. The towns populated by the estate Tamils are much like they always were. They look like fifty years ago. The gap between Hambantota and Hatton is even wider than the gap between Singapore and Sri Lanka.
The line rooms in which most of these people live was set up by the British when they ruled the country. They established the line rooms to house the Tamil laborers they brought down from South India for the purpose. The tragedy is that even today most of the estate Tamil population continues to live in line rooms. Those who were mortified when the displaced Tamil victims of the war in the North were put into welfare centres at the close of the war, would see a resemblance between the tin roof shelters of those refugee camps and the line rooms in the estates today. But as they are hidden away in the midst of beautiful tea estates they do not excite comparable indignation either from the media or from oganisations in Sri Lanka and abroad who campaign for the rights of people.
Most of the land under tea cultivation is owned by the state. On the other hand, most of the tea production comes from small holders who own the land. This indicates that the old method of having big companies run big estates is not efficient or cost effective any more. The better way seems to be to have small holders who own their land and have an incentive to work hard for their own upliftment and thereby increase the country’s level of tea production and its foreign exchange reserves. At the present time, due to the lower productivity on the big state-owned estate, the estate companies are only willing to pay Rs 480 per day to the estate labourers, which goes up to a higher rate of Rs 620 per day if they exceed a minimum requirement of days of work. Few of them meet that minimum requirement, so they end up getting paid the lesser amount as their day rate. This is hardly a living wage.
Except for those living near urban areas, estate workers are largely dependent on the estate’s management for their basic needs – housing, health, and education. The estate population living closer to urban areas such as Hatton, Badulla, Kandy, Nawalapitiya, Nuwara Eliya, Gampola, Bandarawela and some of the small towns like Kottagala and Maskeliya are able to access regular government services which are of higher quality. However, only a small number of students are able to benefit from the urban schools close to the estates that belong to the regular governmental system. It is the same with regard to health services
According to a recent research study of the Institute for Policy Studies, people in Sri Lanka’s estate sector are one of the most marginalized groups in the country. According to its findings, families working on estates are among the country’s poorest in terms of nutrition. About 30% of children under the age of five are underweight, nearly 1 in 3 babies have low birth weight, and one-third of women of reproductive age are malnourished. This is a serious issue as it leads to a possible ‘vicious cycle’. The report also points out that in the estate sector, the households’ socio-economic status is considerably lower than in the rural and urban sectors. Almost 61% of its households fall into the poorest category, while in the urban and rural sectors this was at 8% and 20% respectively. Households’ poor socio-economic status affects the health and welfare of people in the estate sector adversely.
I had first hand experience of their poverty when I went to Hatton and interviewed several young students from the estate sector for a scholarship scheme donated by the Rotary Club of Carmatheon, Wales, who had gained admission to university. Most of them came from families in which the parents took home no more than Rs 8 – 10,000 a month. One showed me his mother’s monthly pay slip which showed a take home pay of Rs 8,500. Although the total earnings were 13,000 there were deductions for EPF/ ETF and also for salary advances taken. In addition, there was a Rs 5 charge for the pay slip itself, which indicates how careful the estate management is to extract the maximum from the worker. In some cases I found that only one parent was working, as the other was no longer living or retired. It was difficult to believe these families could make ends meet.
I took the opportunity to ask these young university students what they thought the main problem in the estate sector was. Many of the students referred to the cost of living and the low incomes of their families that made it difficult for them to manage. Some spoke of the difficulties of studying in a line room, with neighbours and disturbances all around them. I had the good fortune to be accompanied by Dr A.S.Chandrabose, Senior Lecturer in Social Studies and involved in teaching the subjects of Economy of Sri Lanka and Comparative Economies. He is also a scholar who has done much work on the Tamil people of recent Indian origin living in the estate sector. It was his view, as an academic who has studied the estate sector over the years that the main problem of the people living within that sector was that they could not own their own land and their own house.
In an academic paper Dr Chandrabose has written that “nearly 89 percent of the people in Sri Lanka live in a single housing unit and people occupying slums or shanties has drastically reduced and constitutes less than 1 percent. However, the national housing conditions do not exist in the state sector and around 56 percent of the estate workers are still living in line rooms which were constructed by the British in the early 19th century.” According to government statistics presented in the Consumer Finance and Socio Economic Survey of 2003/04, 83 percent of urban families and 95 percent of rural families own their own homes, but in the estate sector it is only 22 who own their own homes.
The only hope of the poor people in the estate sector for their economic progress can only be that the benevolent eye of the government leadership will fall once more upon them, and will keep the promises made. In his last election manifesto, Mahinda Chintana, President Mahinda Rajapaksa promised “One of my major goals is to make the plantation community a house owning one. Accordingly, instead of living in line rooms, every plantation worker’s family will be a proud owner of a new home with basic amenities by the year 2015.” As the coming year, 2015, is set to be an Election Year, there is every possibility of the government seeking once again to woo the support of the estate Tamil community. The President’s budget speech for 2014 contained the promise of constructing housing complexes with 50,000 housing units to replace poor quality housing available in the estate sector.
The estate Tamil people I spoke to are still hopeful of the national leader who will look after their welfare, and of Hatton as much as Hambantota. It is important that President Rajapaksa seeks to make the estate Tamil people feel they are an integral part of the larger Sri Lankan nation to which he and his government are committed. Unless the government is able to heal the ethnic and religious fissure in the country, the development process can become come unstuck due to unresolved ethnic conflict. This has been the experience of the past and must not be repeated.