By Jehan Perera –
The readiness to politicize any issue came to the fore in the course of the landslide tragedy at Haldamulla. With presidential elections on the near horizon, there was competition to be seen as caring more for the victims than the other. The President, ministers, leaders of political parties and their party members all were seen on the media taking relief supplies to the area and commiserating with the victims. The government had the advantage as it could control access to the area. The media showed visuals of the relief supplies taken by the Democratic Party dumped on the side of the road as they could not gain access to site of the tragedy.
Both the government and Northern Provincial Council also expressed their intention to adopt the children who had been orphaned. The Northern Provincial Council even passed a resolution to that effect. On the other hand, the government said it would send the children to state orphanages. This hasty decision was in contradiction to the established policy of the Department of Childcare and Probation which is that children should be brought up in a family environment as far as possible. It is well known that state orphanages are poorly funded and generally under-resourced. The position of both the government and Northern Provincial Council were in violation of the “best interests of the child” which is the accepted norm both locally and internationally.
On the more positive side, the readiness of the general Sri Lankan population to rally around any section faced with disaster came to the fore in the aftermath of the landslide disaster in the hill country. It evoked memories of the public response in the aftermath of the Tsunami of 2004. Voluntary assistance and donations came in from all parts of the country irrespective of ethnicity or religion. It showed that social and man-made barriers could be overcome and the spirit of universalism could prevail. During the Tsunami tragedy, even members of the security forces and LTTE who had been battling each other made common cause to save one another.
On this occasion too, although the disaster has been much smaller in magnitude of persons affected the response from the wider society has been generous. Even as scenes of the disaster were shown on the television screens and broadcast on radio, privately owned media channels took the initiative to collect humanitarian supplies and have them delivered to the disaster zone. The security forces were quick the dig the area looking for survivors and for bodies. Humanitarian agencies who deployed staff on the ground reported that there was a substantial influx of relief items to the safety centres (dry rations, cooked meals, drinking water, clothes, utensils, personal items etc).
However, the landslide that buried an entire village on Meeriyabedda Estate in Haldamulla, a tea plantation in Sri Lanka’s central hills is a tragic reminder of a marginalized ethnic minority and the failure of the democratic political system to address their needs. The plantation Tamil people have been discriminated against from the time of Independence from British colonial rule when they were denied their citizenship and continue to suffer from that legacy. The wealth they have produced has gone into the coffers of state and plantation companies, but inputs to upgrade the quality of housing for the plantation workers who toil under extreme weather condition has been minimal and often not meeting minimum requirements to enable them to lead dignified lives.
Even today the plantation Tamil community continue to be denied land ownership on the plantations where they have lived for generations and live in ramshackle “line houses” constructed during the colonial period. The media has reported that the affected community had been informed of the danger of earth slips and the need to relocate but they had nowhere else to go. There was negligence in the failure of state authorities and the estate companies to relocate the people to safer locations. The responsibility lies also with the trade unions which are meant to look after the well being of the plantation workers and who are part of the government.
The position of the plantation Tamil community in the country and the disadvantages they face have long been in the background of popular consciousness. The discrimination they have suffered and the poverty that has been their lot has well known. The problem is that so little has been done about it. The poverty in the plantation sector is the highest in the country. Only about a quarter of the population there has an education that exceeds Grade 5 or primary education. Only 13 percent of plantation Tamil children proceed to higher secondary or Advanced Level certificate education, whereas the national average is three times higher at 39 percent.
The basic problem of the plantation sector is rooted in its socio-economic structure that has trapped the plantation Tamil population within it. They are poor, poorly educated and disempowered. They live in homes that they cannot purchase, as they live on plantations owned by the state. The answer to their problems can only come from the state, which is ultimately in charge of the plantation sector. It cannot be borne by the plantation companies themselves, as they are themselves fighting an economic battle for their survival due to the disadvantageous conditions they have inherited. This not only consists of having old trees that do not yield a high output in comparison to other countries. They also have to support a large population of around one million persons who are resident on the plantations, but with only about 20 percent of them actually being part of the workforce.
Planters’ Association Chairman Mr. Roshan Rajadurai, at a round table discussion a few weeks before the landslide in Haldamulla, made a presentation where he made the point that the plantation companies were finding it difficult to make profits in the prevailing economic situation, and that increase in the wage rate was outstripping the rise in tea prices, with the cost of labour being more than two-thirds of the total cost of production. He also drew attention to the fact that when the state tried to run the plantations after nationalizing them, they were all running at a loss until 1992, when the private management contract system was introduced. This indicates that state support is needed on a much larger scale if there is to be any sustainable improvement in the conditions of the lives of the plantation Tamil community. The government is improving buildings and infrastructure in the urban areas spending considerable amounts of money but has so far failed to cater adequately to the needs of the plantation workers who are the poorest segment of our society.
In the aftermath of the disaster at Haldamulla, the challenge will be to sustain the good intentions and sympathy for those who were the victims and change the entire structure of the plantation economy. When the plantation Tamil community was disenfranchised in 1948 by the Ceylon Citizenship Act there was an inexcusable collaboration between the government and a section of the leadership of the northern Tamils at that time. This too is a historical injustice that remains to be put right. The government and opposition need to establish a bipartisan approach so that the right of the plantation Tamil people to own land and build their own homes in the areas where they have long lived is assured. In jointly working for the best interests of a weaker community they can strengthen the unity of Sri Lanka by rebuilding a measure of trust between themselves too.
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