24 September, 2020

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What Is At Stake For Oppressed Plantation Communities In Sri Lanka Beyond The Pandemic?

By Upul Wickramasinghe

Upul Wickramasinghe

The Covid-19 pandemic has shocked the entire world with its enormous health impact on humans, leading to unprecedented social and economic consequences. It is clear the virus does not discriminate on nationality, colour or wealth, as it has already affected a wide swathe of humanity, from the heir apparent to the British throne, and the Prime Minister of the UK, to Palestinian refugees in Israeli-occupied territories in the West Bank. However, it does not take rocket science to understand that people who are socially oppressed and discriminated against are more likely to be vulnerable to and affected by the pandemic, whether they are in a developed or a developing country. For instance, it was reported that the first ten doctors who died from coronavirus all belonged to BAME (Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic) communities despite representing only 44% of the medical staff in England and Wales1. In the US, it was reported that African Americans are disproportionately affected by the pandemic, and the disparity is stark in cities like New Orleans, Chicago, and Detroit, where high concentrations of African Americans live.2 There are numerous examples from all over the world for such disproportionate effects of the virus.

The plantation communities of the central hill country are one of Sri Lanka’s most oppressed and marginalised, who have lived through dire social conditions and often been exploited for almost 200 years. Due to the direct and indirect consequences of the pandemic, they have fallen from the frying pan into the fire. As Yasmin Gunaratnam wrote in the Guardian3, despite the severe restrictions imposed in the country to curtail the pandemic, tea plantation workers were ‘allowed’ – realistically forced by their employers – to continue their work as before. Through firsthand sources from Haputale, a plantation area in the hill country, this author can confirm the dire living conditions in plantation communities reported by Gunaratnam, which have made pandemic controlling measures such as social distancing and maintaining proper sanitation practices simply impractical in those areas.

Photo | supplied buy Upul Wickramasinghe

As Thangamma, a 45-year tea-plucking woman, shared with this author during a corona-relief dry rations distribution program:

“estate management gave us masks, but only for three days, after that we prepared our own masks. There are not any other sanitation facilities…they also gave us 2000 rupees in advance which is to be deducted from our next salary, that’s it…”.

So many studies including a World Bank survey have shown that plantation communities are among the worst affected by chronic under nutrition in Sri Lanka. It is reported that the stunting rate in plantation communities is 36%, whilst the rate of stunted children and underweight adult women in estates was respectively 2.9 and 3.4 times higher than cities. Moreover, low birth weight rates were 2.4 times higher in the plantation sector compared to the other areas of the country.4 

Selva, Thangamma’s son, organised the food-relief program on behalf of the community. What he told this author was disconcerting, but very well explained the reality behind those discouraging figures.

“can’t we include several more kilos of wheat flour to the list instead of sprats? So, people can survive several more days and that is what the urgent need rather than getting food with more nutrients” 

Selva’s tone was optimistic, but in a bitter way. Although he is still 18-year old, through his experiential knowledge, Selva understood very well that a nutritious diet is not a priority in their day-to-day life yet. Rather, even today, Selva’s parents are caught up with the struggle for a life with basic needs, hence including a portion of sprats in their meal is still a dream for them. This looks like unbelievable from most of ours point of view, but it is the lived reality in majority plantation communities.

What is to be done?

Although Karl Marx’s famous statement that “The philosophers have only interpreted the world in various ways; the point, however, is to change it” was expressed more than 150 years ago in Theses on Feuerbach,  this sentiment is very much relevant in today’s context of plantation communities in Sri Lanka. Over time, many economists, sociologists, and policy makers have theorized and explained historical and structural factors which would be fundamentally responsible for sustaining oppressive life conditions in plantation communities. Very little attention, however, has focused on changing those conditions for the betterment of those people.

It was in this context, following mainly the ideas of Paulo Freire, a Brazilian educator who was a leading figure in critical pedagogy, and Antonio Gramsci, an Italian Marxist thinker, that this author and a group of youth initiated a pedagogical intervention in a Haputale plantation community four years ago. As Freire writes in his famous book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, one of the main obstacles in transforming oppressed communities is that they, people in those oppressed communities, do not have role models to look up to and follow. Therefore, a child growing in those communities is unable to look beyond their limited world view and eventually falls into the same vicious cycle that his or her previous generations are trapped within.

Photo | supplied buy Upul Wickramasinghe

Through the functioning of a multi-purpose learning center, our goal was to create a conducive social environment for building role models or organic intellectuals, in a Gramscian sense, from their own communities rather than importing such models from the outside. Under heavy resistance from the estate management and their henchmen, who maintain oppressive conditions to exploit these people for accumulating of profits, we were forced to withdraw the learning center after four years, indicating the difficulty of changing the ingrained structures and lifestyles that reinforce the exploitation of these marginalized communities. 

Nevertheless, the only way forward, at least as we can see, is working not for, but with these communities in such a way that they develop their power to critically comprehend the social structures that are binding the current exploitative system, and contemplate how to change it. As such, they would become the agents of their own change. This would be applicable not only to plantation communities in Sri Lanka, but to any oppressed community in the world.

[1] https://www.theguardian.com/society/2020/apr/10/uk-coronavirus-deaths-bame-doctors-bma

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/08/its-a-racial-justice-issue-black-americans-are-dying-in-greater-numbers-from-covid-19

[3] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2020/apr/24/soap-and-solace-scarce-as-sri-lankas-tea-pickers-toil-on-amid-lockdown?fbclid=IwAR1h3puEQlI3MVYTwqGQQgvKN0rVDY3F9VDDmVbMdzmLuVdlFritpcx3Jzc

[4] https://www.worldbank.org/en/country/srilanka/publication/tackling-chronic-undernutrition-in-sri-lankas-plantations

*Upul Wickramasinghe is a PhD candidate (Anthropology) at Durham University, UK

Note: Special thanks to Ben Hildred for his support in developing the article.

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Latest comments

  • 5
    0

    Only way to improve the living conditions of the plantation workers is to mobilize “international attention” to this crisis. Thondamans have been living off the backs of the plantation workers for generations for personal benefit. Unfortunately, the other politicians who represent these plantation workers try hard but have not achieved anything that could be considered as a substantial improvement. The reason being these other politicians have to play the game according to the prevailing political practices and conditions.

    Its time to mobilize “international attention” to this plight. This may have, at least for some time, a negative impact on the sale and export of Tea, but it would be the cost that Sri Lanka has to pay for treating these plantation workers badly.

    I hope and pray the Diaspora Sri Lankan activists community would take notice and take immediate action. These workers have been the backbone of Sri Lankan economy for generations and its time for action.

  • 3
    0

    Dear Buddhist1,
    .
    Your sincerity
    has been proved to me by earlier comments by you. But how do we get anything done?
    .
    I’m sure that Upul Wickremasinghe is also now quite shocked at what he has discovered, but I note that he has discovered this only when he was researching a “promising subject” for his PhD thesis for the University of Durham, in the UK. Is he a “soda bottle”? Note that I cast no aspersions on the sincerity of either of you.
    .
    I saw this article many hours ago, but before I really start saying anything more on this subject, I must make a long-overdue comment on this other article:
    .
    https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/indian-plantation-workers-experiences/
    .
    Seen four days ago. The author of that article, now in his eighties, had his secondary education just outside the Haputale Pradeshiya Sabha area, at Gurutalawa, on the road to Welimada.
    .
    Upul, please look at this map:
    .
    http://clguva.com/web/Maps/UP/Badulla/17_Badulla_Haputhale_PS_Landscape.pdf
    .
    I live in the Bandarawela Municipal Council area but must cross the Haputale P.S. every time I visit the Bandarawela town, cutting across Ward One, in the North-Western corner of the map, denoted as Eranawela and Kahattewela.

    • 0
      0

      Dear Sinhala_Man,

      Thank you for your response! Just to clarify, this is not the subject of my thesis. Rather I am studying on CKDu issue in Sri Lanka. Moreover, we started working in Haputale since 5 years ago and by the time I had not even thought of doing a PhD. I agree there are so many things for us, not me, to learn about socio-political-economic factors that are contributing for sustaining these oppressive conditions in plantation communities and it is a major part of our works. We are trying to follow the idea of “praxis”- action and reflection upon the action.

      Thank you!

      • 0
        0

        Dear Upul,
        .
        I hope that you will forgive me for any aspersions cast on you. As for CKD, I think that you are the right age to be doing all this. I have a classmate who is also into all this, but I frankly think that we guys are too old for such things.
        .
        http://www.sundayobserver.lk/2019/02/17/news-features/ckdu-plagues-country-debate-causes-rages
        .
        He has written more, but if you look at the comments on this article, you will realise that I’m taking no responsibility for information on such subjects. I have his contact details.
        .
        https://www.colombotelegraph.com/index.php/jaffna-awaits-the-silent-killer-chronic-kidney-disease/
        .
        The author of that article is the daughter of the Election Hoole.

        .
        Since Sive49 had given an email address, I wrote to him. If you had done the like, you may be able to get my contact details from him because I do know this geographical area well.
        .
        There are certain things that we could discuss. I’m sure that there are others who know more than I, but the problem is that it is difficult to know who is taking you for a ride.

  • 2
    0

    PART TWO
    .
    I’ve lived here since I was born in 1948, and mark well that this is not an anonymous comment. Why the anomalies in this map? I will explain if I have a spontaneous response from Upul – just say what you feel, the moment you have read this message.
    .
    I have visited almost “all the Estates in this area.” Well, not every square inch, but I have visited all the little estate schools in it – about eleven, I think – and some of the line rooms, etc. I know that conditions are terrible, and – well, why is nothing being done about all this?
    .
    Buddhist1, it is doubtful that you can do anything about this, until Upul learns other aspects of this problem. You know, the Economics of it all – what the management and the Thondamans say, etc. Yes, there is one of the Thondamns still around. Even he doesn’t know whether he’s the son or the grandson of the original guy. No, that is neither joke nor reflective of my ignorance!
    .
    I’ll tell you – after you demonstrate interest.
    .
    Panini Edirisinhe (NIC 48 3111 444 V) aka “Sinhala_Man”

    • 1
      0

      You cannot compare the plight of Tamil labour in plantations in Sri Lanka which was intentional to Black and Minority Ethnic employees of NHS in UK which is accidental. Though these Tamils are discriminated regarding education, employment, housing and even health facilities, BAME persons do not face such discrimination. While several children of these BAME employees have reached high positions, none of the children of these poor Tamils have attained such. If you take the deaths in UK, roughly one third are elderly whites in nursing homes, one third are whites in the community and one third are non-whites in the community. Most of the deaths are in and around London and in big cities like Birmingham and Manchester, where majority of the population is non-whites. Also most of them in the front line are non-whites, because those jobs are unpopular among whites. Secondly most of the whites prefer to work in the periphery where life is easy academically and socially. Naturally BAME persons are getting affected. Though the percentage of BAME doctors in NHS is 44%, amount of BAME doctors in hospitals of London and around would be double that. I am a member of BAME forum of GMC for the past several years, though I have stopped attending meetings after I retired four years ago, and the venue of the meeting shifted to Manchester which is 300 miles away from London where I live. But still I get all the communications from the forum regarding actions taken to ensure equality. They have called for input from forum members regarding this disproportionate number of BAME deaths, which will give the true picture. This is the same pattern in New York which has disproportionate amount of non-whites.

  • 1
    0

    I was deeply affected after reading Mr. Wickramasinghe’s article and posted it on my Facebook page today i.e 8 May to enable my Facebook friends to read it .Another article written by Mr. Charles Sarvan also on the oppression of plantation workers in several former British colonies including Ceylon,Fiji , Malaya and several countries in the Caribbean also distressed me a lot .

    The lot of the plantation workers in Ceylon worsened soon after independence as legislation passed by the Parliament rendered most of them stateless and voteless .

    My wife and I have made a firm decision to do our utmost to assist plantation workers by funding cataract operations and the construction of toilets for community use ,as well as providing dry rations for those living in extreme poverty .

    I kindly request Mr. Wickrmasinghe to contact me on nage84@yahoo.com in order to obtain information about NGOs assisting plantation workers .

  • 2
    0

    There are also other things happening in the plantations that need consideration.
    Many of the younger generation as moving out plantations for what they imagine as a better life in IPZs, the Middle East etc. They are increasingly drawn to the cities and are exploited by employers. They have no job security, but returning to the plantations will never happen.
    Most the small number of educated people from the plantations distance themselves from their homes.
    Some plantations are allowed to run down with land parcelled out to all manner of outsiders.
    *
    Comparison with the once strong Indian plantation community in Malaysia will give further insights.

    • 1
      2

      SJ

      It appears you do not want the young generation of upcountry Tamils to emancipate from captivity.
      Is it because you don’t want them to find the ways and means of progressing themselves from neo slavery?
      Like their Sinhala/Buddhist brethren Tamil/Saivites Jaffna men have to wait another million years for their enlightenment.

      Did Renaissance miss the dumbasses or Dumbasses miss Renaissance?
      Both the Sinhala/Buddhists and Tamil/Saivites would not have noticed it.

  • 0
    1

    What is at stake for oppressed Plantation Communities in Srilanka BEFORE the Pandemic, DURING the Pandemic and even BEYOND the Pandemic?

    Same old story. Misery, Hunger and Death.
    They have been socially distanced for the past 200 odd years!

  • 1
    1

    Sinhala Man.

    This certainly may not be the only instance in History; The present Boss of the CWC is the SON of the original CWC Boss!

    • 2
      1

      Plato

      “The present Boss of the CWC is the SON of the original CWC Boss!”

      Is he not the grandson of the oldman?

      • 1
        0

        NV, I’m going to give this one a miss. The gossip that abounds here seems to have reached Plato’s ears.
        .
        This hardly matters to us.
        .
        As Rajan Hoole has commented, this sort of talk only helps us evade more important issues.

        • 1
          0

          Sinhala_Man
          I am sorry in this case I have no intention of gossipping whatsoever, I was only trying to state the fact. If I have offended inadvertently my sincere apologies.


          Please note:
          Arumugam Thondaman
          Member of Parliament
          Savumiamoorthy Arumugan Ramanathan Thondaman, MP is the former Cabinet Minister of Livestock and Rural Community Development and the grandson of prominent unionist Saumyamoorthi Thondaman in Sri Lanka. Wikipedia
          Born: 29 May 1964 (age 55 years), Sri Lanka


          Arumugam Thondaman – Wikipedia

          • 0
            0

            Dear NV,
            .
            I caused offence there, not you!
            What you have stated is the acceptable version; let that stand.
            .
            I’ve looked again at my careless comment.
            .
            When I wrote, “I’ll tell you – after you demonstrate interest.” I was wanting to invite queries on some of the more serious issues that I had raised. That map for instance. But where had I placed the offer?
            .
            I had, before this, linked readers to this map, the Bandarawela MC map, and a road map. Nobody was interested. I know that you will be, now that you’ve seen this.
            .
            I’ll tell you. The late WPG Ariyadasa and WJM Lokubandara (former M.P.s for Haputale) had wanted this swathe with lots of Sinhalese voters to be in Haputale so as to ensure that no “Demalaa” would be elected to Parliament from Haputale on FPPS.
            .
            You will understand the seriousness of this, but some will begin to open their eyes only if there is a dialogue. They will not seek clarification of FPPS, but if you tease them, then they will start taking an interest.
            .
            Don’t you agree that we get the sort of government that we deserve?

  • 4
    0

    When we say things like ‘Thondamans have been living off the backs of the plantation workers for generations for personal benefit;’ we are merely trying to evade responsibility. As terrible as their plight is, the problem of Plantation Tamils cannot be addressed in isolation. The Citizenship Acts degraded our judiciary and our political culture to a point where we were all caught up in a whirlpool of self-destruction. About the same time, in the early 1950s, when our Supreme Court disgraced itself in the Citizenship case, the South African Supreme Court, under an Apartheid regime, showed commendable professional integrity in dealing with the case of coloured voters in Cape Town. What became of our judiciary is a very sorry tale.

    • 2
      0

      Act to disenfranchise Tamils of recent Indian origin violated section 29 of constitution, which was upheld by Privy Council, which referred the matter back to Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. But instead of going along, Supreme Court held that it was not only against one section of the population, but for everyone. This makes a mockery of justice as 99.9% of those who lost their citizenship were Tamils. Had Sinhalese were made to prove their fathers and Grandfathers were born in Sri Lanka, a large segment of them especially those in villages and remote ares would have lost it, as registration of births in those regions were not always done. Similarly Sinhala Only bill violated section 29 of constitution which was upheld by Privy Council, which referred the matter back to Supreme Court of Sri Lanka. But instead of going along, Supreme Court held that Kodeeswaran a public servant cannot challenge the government. This is how justice was manipulated to commit crimes against Tamils.

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