Plantation Sector Quagmire: Light At The End Of The Tunnel?

CIfN Report by Ratnam Nadarajah
First Publication April 5, 2016 in the Colomba Telegraph

Ratnam NadarajahRatnam Nadarajah

I recently visited Sri-Lanka after a two-year spell. Pleasantly surprised to see that people are happier and no apparent tension among the citizens which is a healthy situation in a democracy. They are very free to express their views and the media seem to be freer. There is a general euphoria among the citizens. People talk about ease of transport due to excellent road network. Mobility to the masses gives another dimension to their thinking and living, which is good for the nation’s march towards development. But roads alone cannot solve the country’s problems. I spent a good part of our holidays, in the hill country learning about the lives and times of the people from the plantation sector. They have been in the Srilanka for almost close to two centuries They were the backbone of the nation’s economy and contributed to the balance of payment for a long time.

Today in the second decade of the 21st century their livelihood has not changed any better compared to the other communities. This have been acknowledged by all parties. Some people would rightly argue that these forks have the universal franchise like any other citizenry of the land and what stops them from bettering themselves. I have no qualms about their line of thinking and argument. But their problem does not stop at them exercising their God given right to vote at elections.Upcountry-Tamils

Let us consider their living conditions compared to the rest of the society. They live in the same “lines” as their forefathers. Little has changed except that they are no more stateless, they are citizens of the land. Their basic life revolves round the estate where they live and work. They have no adequate recreation facilities for them or their families. The result for the majority of the adults is drinking alcohol seems to be the solution. To give some sort of statistics; In my days as a youth in Talawakelle there were only two liquor shops. If my memory serves me correct there was the UK de Silva’s and the other was Mel Mendes

Today there are more than 20 licensed drinking dens and I am not sure how many illicit joints in and around the town. Alcoholism in the plantation sector, I was told at a conference in 1997 is the highest in Southeast Asia. I can only go by what was stated by a very senior official (Vice President) of a leading trade union representing the estate workers. If that was the case Nineteen years ago, I shudder to think what would the present statistics reveal. But anyone could see the damage alcohol is doing the families. Suicides, broken families, divorces, child abuse, violence to name a few. What has been done to mitigate these social, economic and basic human right issues. Not much is the simple answer. Who or what is responsible for the status quo of these people. There is no simple answer to this, otherwise it would have been fixed to some degree of satisfaction. One could argue it is the sheer ignorance or put it simply they know not any better. Is this a valid argument in this day and age? No, no it is more sinister than that. The plantation sector has been heavily unionised for a long time. The joke these days is that they are more unions than members. Be that as it may, the fact remains that people who are supposed to look after the workers’ interest are more interested in themselves and fattening their side kicks in the process. 90 percent of the plantation trade unions are affiliated to political parties. This is somewhat unique in that the trade union bosses are also the parliamentarians. You would see them only during the election period. It is a fact that these union leaders do not seem to represent the interest of their fee paying members. Union leaders turned politicians are only looking for positions in whatever government of the day. Jumping sides is a norm in Sri-Lankan politics. It’s been said that being a minister, is a license to print money

Let us look at the big picture. The only hospitals (base) in the plantation sector are the ones built by the British in the 19th century and early part of the 20th century. Not even a single additional room had been added to these outdated colonial buildings. Patients end up attending private clinics seeing doctors, they call them Vps, God knows why. Paying a lot for consultation and medication. How about those who could not afford or too ill to travel long distances. Admittedly this is also the picture in other parts of the country, but not so prevalent.

Here is a classic case. In June 2011 foundation was laid by no other than our present President Rt.Hon. Sirisena for an Indian government financed, modern hospital in Hatton (Dickoya). When we had a programme in Kotagala in February 2014 the then Assistant High Commissioner Kandy Hon. Natarajan was our special guest. When he was asked as to when the new hospital complex would be opened, he said it would be opened in April 2014.Here we are in March 2016 there is no sign of the hospital being opened in the near future. It was also said that when the Indian Prime Minister Rt. Hon. Modi visited Sri Lanka in 2015, he would open same. He never visited upcountry let alone open the hospital. One wanders, why? Your guess is as good as mine. There are anecdotal evidences to say that they are so marginalised and unrepresented that they are outside the radar and anything is possible. This is the sad fact of life for the estate community. Surely there is enough representation from the plantation sector to force a debate on this issue. They would rather be yes men to safeguard position they hold dearly and beneficially. They do not want to upset the apple cart. If they do, they would be simply dumped!

I was very much taken up by the recent media reports saying that $690million spending is on the pipe line for the development of above community. This is what prompted me to write this article in the first place. I must congratulate the present government firstly for acknowledging the fact that social indicators of well over one million strong plantation community in Sri Lanka are well below the national standards. I welcome the proposed five-year plan. What concerns me is the fact that the administration has no money in their coffers even to service the loans the previous government had borrowed. I want to pose a simple but relevant question, where are they getting the funds to execute these projects. Is it another paper promise just to please the electorates . I sincerely hope not. These citizens as I have said and acknowledged by the majority as being the backbone of tea exports earning around $1.5billion annually representing about a quarter of the country’ total export does not seem to see any light at the end of -the tunnel. It is time their grievances are addressed. I was also consoled by the fact that there are people from all spectrum of the political, social and ethnic divide, who are genuinely interested and working hard to improve the living conditions of these people.

I am also not so certain than their problems can be solved in five years flat. However, we can lay a solid foundation and set aside funds ring fenced for this project and not be tampered by the changing times and by change of governments. If a programme of work planned and executed with the principal stakeholders forming part of the delivery team it will be a win, win for all parties. A happy and acknowledged workforce will be a tremendous force in the making in a modern and vibrant Sri Lanka.

Tea as a drink need to exploited further and innovating marketing strategies developed to meet the challenges, trends and aspiration of the modern consumers. Look at the case of Coffee. Coffee consumption has been doubling in every five years in recent times.

From my observation and numerous dialogue with a cross section of the community in and outside, I have come to a conclusion that one of the main stumbling block this communities’ progress and advancement have been the lack of adequate education facilities and opportunities. “Education, education, education alone. Education is not the amount of information that is put into your brain and runs riot there undigested all your life. We must have life-building, man-making, character building, assimilation of ideas leading to nation building” Swami Vivekananda.

At present we have no leadership, no guidance available to the parents so that they may be guiding light in their children’s welfare. For instance, there are no dedicated science colleges, proper library information centres to cater for estate communities. Is it the presumption that these children from the estates do not and cannot match the intellect of the other communities . It is a complete fallacy, travesty and insults the intelligence of these children? I know for a fact, given the opportunity they can match and even excel in their field of studies. The nation as a whole is missing out on this knowledge pool

There are no Vocational training centres available to those who want to learn a trade and be part of the highly needed skill pool of the nation. By the way, one or two that were established partly to address this issue is no more operational. I must also haste to mention that these facilities contrary to popular beliefs were donor funded projects, in spite of being called so and so owned. The tragedy is that when governments change these projects are neglected and in majority of the cases abandoned, leaving the trainees in midstream. This should never be the case. These must come under a government department similar to other technical and vocational training centres. The stakeholders should also have a key role to play. They cannot and should not leave others to solve their problems. It is the easiest thing in the world to walk away. Again the adult population have no available resources to seek help and guidance. They should not allow politicians to decide their fates and the future of their youngsters. Far too much is at stake This is why I have said education at all level of the society is paramount to a vibrant society and social mobility. Foretold is forewarned. Ignorance is no bliss to these down trodden masses. They are no second class citizens. They have every right to be there and demand and be given what is long overdue.

I am certain that there is enough educated and talented people in the community. These people should offer their services to be part of the team to uplift and make them walk tall. There are also enough volunteers and supporters from outside the confines of the estate communities.

In this knowledge based period of our life in planet earth its time that the nation should take pride in giving the rightful support to the educational, socio-economic development of the plantation sector community, the nation had forgotten for a long time. Better late than never.

I am a strong believer of the goodness of the human spirit which is beyond colour, creed, religion or ethnicity. When the nation harnesses the latent talent of all players in the scheme it will be a win for all.

“My Faith is in the Younger Generation, out of them will come my workers. They will work out the problem like Lions” said Swami Vivekananda