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Sri Lankan at last

Confined for centuries to the plantations, the Tamils of Indian origin in Sri Lanka now have their long-lost identity restored, says V.S. SAMBANDAN.


THE serene green-carpeted hills of central Sri Lanka can soothe even the most stressed out mind. And, they are also home to Sri Lanka's main claim to international fame — the tea plantations in the central hill districts.

Then, there is also another issue — the sweat and toil behind the cups of Sri Lankan tea that cheer millions upon millions the world over. Or, the hard work put in by the till-recently stateless workers ... the Tamils of Indian origin..

At the edge of one such sprawling plantation stands septugenarian Sinnaiya. A pail of fresh milk is by his side. "The work keeps me occupied and adds to the income." After retiring from the plantations 20 years ago, he spends time shuttling between two hills — the first, the one on which he lives and the other, where his son's new residence is located.

The only survivor of 13 brothers and sisters, he does not recall the time when he set foot on the island. His father, Kaliyaperumal, came from "somewhere in Thanjavur district" (in Tamil Nadu, India) to work on the plantations. Sinnaiya has not returned to India since he was a toddler.

"My parents are dead and gone. My brother said he would take us to just show us the place. He is dead. How can I go to India? I won't know anything. How will we find the place?" he asks, with a tone of resignation.

The distant clatter of a milk van revives a long-lost, though momentary, reverie. "I will join you in a minute," he says, picking up the pail, handing it over for its contents to be measured and waiting patiently for an entry to be marked in his notebook. "This is my only identity," he says pulling out an old card, which has his name and other details. "Come along, I will tell you all that I can. I have nothing much to do till the afternoon van arrives," he says cheerfully.

"This is my son's house. My wife and I live on the hill over there. You won't be able to make it walking. I am used to it," says the 70-year-old, as a justifiably proud smile spreads across his wrinkled face.

* * *

On October 7, 2003, Sri Lanka's 225-member Parliament set right an anomaly made five decades ago as a newly independent country. An otherwise divided polity stood as one to pass unanimously the "Grant of Citizenship to Persons of Indian Origin". In sharp contrast to 1948, when — barring two Left parties and a party representing the interests of the plantation workers — there was none to oppose the disenfranchisement move, this October, the 172 MPs present (in the 225-member Parliament), said "aye" to give these inhabitants of the plantations their right to citizenship.

The 172/0-vote tally brought to a legislative end, decades of institutionalised political marginalisation of the Tamils of Indian origin.

Across the political spectrum, all, including hard-line radicals in the Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna, spoke as one; a rare convergence of political opinion was described by MPs as a ray of hope. But behind this move lies the tragic, if not oft repeated, but not fully comprehended, story of the blood, sweat and toil of those who built up the tea industry. They trekked across hostile jungle tracts, cleared the forests, paved the roads and laid the railway tracks that criss-cross Sri Lanka, and then went on to build the country's tea-economy. But a few legislative moves, after the island-nation got its freedom, saw them loose their citizenship.

In a country which has strong ties with India, these Tamils constitute the strongest link. Historian S. Muthiah, in his book, Indo Lankans, notes the travails of those who came in several phases — as wage workers to clear the jungles for roads, railways and plantations, then for road building and to work on the plantations — initially coffee and then tea.

For centuries they lived in the hills, in dinghy line houses, with hardly any facilities, and worse, without an identity. Their bright children and hard-working womenfolk were confined to the plantations. Since then, there has been very little mobility in employment, with a few migrating to the major cities.

* * *

"I have no problems," says Jeganathan, a supervisor on a plantation in Hatton. As a kangaani, his job is simpler than that of Jeyarani, who plucks tea leaves. "Yes, citizenship is a problem. Not so now, I hope," he says, referring to the October bill.

"There is no discrimination in the wage structure. It is just a matter of identity. It is important," he says.

"The work in the plantation is difficult," a tea-plucker chimes in, her fingers deftly plucking the leaves with ease and then transferring them to a basket cradled from her forehead. "We leave our children with relatives, or sometimes at the plantation crèche."

After a consignment is plucked, the workers trek to a weighing centre nearby to deposit the produce and then start the next shift.

A shared concern is that while they have been very much in focus, it was not till October that they got the basic right to be called Sri Lankan. However, not everyone is optimistic.

"I don't even know about it. I have not heard about it," says Saroja, an aged woman, who has just retired from the plantations.

Her newly built brick and mortar house is a far cry from the line houses that were symbolic of their existence. "This is a real change. These houses are brighter and have improved our conditions. Though late, at least our children can enjoy better benefits," she says.

Housing, which is a major problem for the workers, is an issue being addressed by the Government in a phased manner, with the aim of doing away with the colonial line-system. Access to primary healthcare is available, but for the treatment of major illnesses, they have to travel to the nearest town.

* * *

Inside his son's house, Sinnaiya pulls out chairs. A small Sri Lankan flag is displayed on the mantle piece. Calendars with the Tamil film and TV stars from India line the walls. "I retired in 1981 with a parting sum of Rs. 4,550," he says. With his earnings as a plantation hand, he has raised his family of seven children — "three girls and four boys", he beams.

While his children continue to remain in the plantations, Sinnaiya has ensured that his 15 grandchildren are "all in school".

"One of my sons is a kangaani," he says, proud that his first-born has attained higher levels than him at work. His hope is that his grandchildren move away from the plantation and find a better life.

But he is not too optimistic either. "All my children went to school, but they are all now in the plantations. At least one made it to become a kangaani."

Confined for centuries to the plantations, these workers have been numbed into apathy over their plight of statelessness. "There is no difficulty without citizenship. We are only in the plantations.

"I will now have to look at the procedures involved and at this advanced age, I can hope to call myself a citizen of Sri Lanka," he says.

* * *

A few kilometres away, toddlers are in a crèche run by a plantation. An ayah takes care of the children. "The mothers leave some food for them. We see to it that the water is clean. As these are mostly pre-schoolers, we have to be careful," she says.

The children hum tunes from popular Tamil films, but in the distance stands a solitary figure, his thin, malnourished frame against a goalpost, his eyes gazing emptily at a school in the distance.

"He is the only boy in this plantation who does not go to school," says Rani, the headmistress of a school, which is about a kilometre from the crèche. "He is a slow learner, so we have detained him. His parents were upset and changed his school much against his wishes. So he does not go to his new school and we can't take him back as he is no longer on our rolls."

The girl students in the plantations, according to teachers, have a difficult life. Most often, with their mothers away at work either abroad, or in Colombo as domestic help, these children bear the brunt of running the household. "There is considerable abuse of the girl child. Irresponsible fathers make it worse," the principal says.

While the move to grant citizenship has restored to the stateless labourer a long lost identity, and it has taken decades for him to be called a citizen of Sri Lanka, a more arduous trek up the social and employment ladder has only just begun for him.

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