An uphill struggle in Sri Lanka’s tea country
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While business chambers and affluent citizens are seeing a return to normalcy, most others in Sri Lanka are acutely feeling the impact of the economic crisis. For the Malaiyaha Tamils, who already face structural deprivation, the soaring inflation and joblessness have made everyday life a battle for survival, reports Meera Srinivasan

November 26, 2022 06:00 am | Updated November 29, 2022 04:29 pm IST

The World Bank noted in October that “more than half the population living in estate areas is now below the poverty line” in Sri Lanka. Workers pick tea leaves at a tea estate in Kandy, Sri Lanka.

The World Bank noted in October that “more than half the population living in estate areas is now below the poverty line” in Sri Lanka. Workers pick tea leaves at a tea estate in Kandy, Sri Lanka. | Photo Credit: Getty Images

Watch | How the economic crisis has hurt Sri Lanka’s hill Tamils

Sathish Sumithra’s son, barely two years old, is too young to make sense of Sri Lanka’s unrelenting economic crisis, but not to escape it. He must cope with the drastic dietary and lifestyle changes it has brought about. His formula milk intake has halved, he is fed an occasional egg — his parents cannot afford fish or meat — and he wears old, washed diapers at night.

“An egg costs 70 rupees (₹16) now,” says Sumithra, breaking down what the country’s 70% inflation and over 80% food inflation means in her working-class household. “A formula milk tin was 800 rupees (₹177) some months ago; it is now 1,400 (₹310). Diaper packs are more than 4,000 rupees (₹886). We just can’t afford to eat and live like we did before. Surviving each day is a struggle.”

Sumithra lives in a poky line room in a tea estate in Kandy district of the Central Province. Several thousand families across Sri Lanka’s plantation districts still live in the colonial-era accommodation. Her husband is employed at a bar in a nearby town and makes 35,000 rupees a month (roughly ₹7,760) — that too only during a good sales month. Tracking the ever-changing prices of essentials is now a mandatory and daunting exercise for families, especially those who are rationing even the most basic items to survive. Everyone talks prices.

“A pack of 10 sanitary pads costs more than 400 rupees (₹88) now; it used to be 110 (₹24). Many girls can’t afford that, so they are using cloth [napkins]. They end up missing school when they get their period,” Sumithra notes. Children walk up to two hours to get to their secondary school in this estate. The roads are not motorable, and buses do not run here.

In the last three months alone, a dozen students have dropped out of schools in Atabage, barely 30 km from the bustling city of Kandy, the centre of Sri Lanka’s last kingdom and now a popular tourist spot showcasing the island nation’s Buddhist heritage. The rising cost of sanitary products is not the only reason girls are dropping out. Families are pulling their children out of school to save on education-related expenses. “A notebook costs 410 rupees (₹90); one pencil is 40 (₹9),” says an estate worker whose daughter stopped going to school this year.

Many children in the hill country are losing weight as families are unable to afford nutritious food amid soaring inflation. Children at an estate in Atabage, Kandy district. 

Many children in the hill country are losing weight as families are unable to afford nutritious food amid soaring inflation. Children at an estate in Atabage, Kandy district.  | Photo Credit: Meera Srinivasan 

Besides, as families are eating fewer meals, packing lunch for school is not an option. Jesudasan Nikalasmary, a pre-school teacher, maintains a flower-shaped, colour-coded diagram in her small classroom to record the weight of children. “See the red petal,” she points out. “The names written on it are of children who are underweight for their age. In the last few months, more children in our class have moved to the red zone.”

According to the United Nation’s World Food Programme (WFP), more than six million people (about 30% of the country’s population) face food insecurity and require humanitarian assistance. The WFP recently found that 86% of families are “buying cheaper, less nutritious food, eating less and in some cases skipping meals altogether”.

Waning protests

How Sri Lanka got here is now a well-known story. Earlier this year, the island nation found itself in a dire balance of payments problem, consequent to mega development-fuelled borrowing and a chronic shortfall of foreign exchange revenue as against expenditure over the years. The dollar crunch resulted in acute shortages of imported food items, fuel and medicines, and forced the government to default on its $51 billion foreign debt in April. The shortages made daily life precarious in the estates where infrastructure is abysmal and connectivity is usually poor. “I walked 18 km a day in these mountains to deliver letters,” says a postman in Atabage, recalling the days of severe fuel shortages.

The painful economic crash brought people to the streets across the island — first to line up for essentials and then to protest the government’s poor response to their misery. The historic street protests in Colombo forced the Rajapaksa administration out of power and led to the election of President Ranil Wickremesinghe through a parliamentary vote. The new government’s provisional agreement with the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the prospect of a bailout offered a semblance of stability for observers outside the country and relief to many, mostly affluent, Sri Lankans. The government introduced a fuel rationing system using QR codes, restricted imports and tried to save scarce dollars. With India pledging close to $4 billion assistance this year and some repurposed funds, Sri Lanka was able to import fuel and energy, fertilizer, and pharma goods. “No more queues. No more street protests,” government interlocutors were quick to boast.

The queues did disappear. The protests have splintered and visibly waned. Many middle-class citizens who were regulars at protests not long ago do not wish to resist any more as life is returning to normal for them. Their petrol tanks are full. They drive their children to school every day. Price rise does not strain their pockets as much as it does their poorer compatriots’. They criticise the residual agitations and are silent about the recent crackdown on protesters. The business chambers, which were supportive of the popular uprising at the height of the crisis, are now asking protesters not to “destabilise” the country. They are desperate to put the crisis behind them and are pinning their hopes on an economic revival in 2023.

But the crisis, in its most excruciating form, is not over for many Sri Lankans. The World Bank estimates that national poverty levels doubled from 13.1% in 2021 to 25.6% in 2022. Urban poverty rates have tripled, to 15%. In effect, about 2.7 million additional people have fallen into poverty in the last year alone. The Bank highlighted an “immense setback” in its update this October, noting that “more than half the population living in estate areas is now below the poverty line”.

The past is present

The economic crisis is trapping millions of Sri Lankans in joblessness and poverty, but Malaiyaha Tamils are not among the “newly poor”. Their economic distress predates this slump and will likely outlast it. Deprivation has been a running theme for this community, whose south Indian ancestors were brought across the Palk Strait two centuries ago as labourers to clear land, build roads and railways, grow and pluck coffee, and later tea, on the British-run plantations. They have since faced structural oppression and exploitation by the colonial rulers, the post-colonial state, and the private plantation companies. Following their long struggle for citizenship until 2003, the Malaiyaha Tamils continue to fight for land, housing rights, and decent wages.

Some of the Malaiyaha Tamils who are bilingual and speak Sinhala also point to rampant, modern-day racism in the predominantly Sinhalese-employed government offices. “You are made to feel like an outsider in your own area,” says S. Bhuvaneshwari, a young home-maker who lives on a tea estate. The everyday discrimination faced by the community, which is distinct from the Tamils of Sri Lanka’s north and east, is less known though it has drawn more attention in recent times. In his visit to Sri Lanka in December 2021, United Nations Special Rapporteur Tomoya Obokata noted that “contemporary forms of slavery have an ethnic dimension” and that Malaiyaha Tamils continue to face “multiple forms of discrimination based on their origin”.

An estimated 1.5 lakh workers are employed in the tea estates. About twice as many Malaiyaha Tamils, who live in the estates, work outside the plantation economy — on vegetable farms, tea smallholdings, in small shops, eateries, and as domestic workers. Scores from the million-strong community also work as professionals or run businesses across the island and abroad.

After a determined struggle for three years, estate workers won a daily wage of 1,000 rupees (about ₹225) last year. The profit-making plantation companies grudgingly agreed to the rate, only after tying it to unrealistic targets of productivity and the number of days of labour. Workers have little control over these, for monsoons and the year-long maintenance of the estates determine the quantity and quality of produce — that too if leaders do not resort to rash decisions such as the abrupt chemical fertilizer ban imposed by then President Gotabaya Rajapaksa last year that led to a 40% drop in yield.

The hard-won wage of 1,000 rupees is not only difficult to earn, but also grossly inadequate, argues a 2022 study by the Kandy-based NGO Institute of Social Development. Factoring in prevailing costs of living, the study led by University of Peradeniya economist S. Vijesandiran showed that a worker needs at least 2,577.91 rupees (about ₹571) a day, with assured work for 21 days, to support a family of four.

The predominantly female workforce in the estates knows that even their best effort, braving blood-sucking leeches and exhaustion from endless housework, can only fetch them less than half of that. “I couldn’t cope. I stopped working as a tea plucker,” says Agnes, who has four daughters. She is now trying to find a job in West Asia, a common recourse for many workers, to make both ends meet. In opting for domestic work far away, the women often face the risk of continued exploitation. Back home, they are blamed for abandoning their families.

Everyone is seeking a coping mechanism. Some are converting to a different religion for relief. Some are taking high-interest loans from microfinance companies that are notorious for targeting poor women. Some, like Agnes, cannot wait to fly out for a new job. “I have no other option. My husband does not work any more. I cannot feed my family if I continue working here. I have already stopped sending two of my daughters to school,” she says. Like most others, she would find it hard to say which part of her family’s suffering is induced by the downturn.

Eroding hope

In fact, many families living in the estates are yet to recover from the joblessness of the COVID-19 years. Thousands of domestic workers returned from West Asia, while scores of young people lost their jobs in Colombo and returned to their villages. Two years and a debilitating crisis later, finding a new job is proving to be nearly impossible.

“I have been trying to get a job that pays a decent salary, and that will let me live in Colombo and send some money to my family here. But the wages are too low. I can’t save even a few thousands,” says G. Liegendiran, 20, who used to work in Colombo and is now back in the estates.

Economic hardships are not new for him, but there is a new sense of hopelessness. “Seeing all that happened this year, I thought our country was about to change for the better. But here we are, left with the same political class. They are all protecting each other. They don’t care about people like us,” he says. Like many other young people on the plantations, Liegendiran is exploring job opportunities abroad as “it is hard to imagine a future here.”

If the young are giving up, it is not for the want of trying. From the time she cleared her advance-level, school-leaving examination a couple of years ago, Danushiya Ramkumar has been desperately applying for jobs and training programmes. “Some employers say our line room address is invalid without a door number and street name. It is almost like we don’t have an identity. It is frustrating,” she says. The courses she wanted to attend were not available in Tamil. “The vocational institutes offer classes only in Sinhala. When I asked them if they could at least translate key sections to English, they refused. I don’t know if those who were protesting in the Aragalaya (struggle) against the crisis know how some of us have lived and continue to live. This is our reality.”

Last month, President Wickremesinghe announced that the government will appoint a committee to study “how best to integrate the Tamils of Hill Country Origin” further into Sri Lankan society. It was seen as an admission that the community had been left behind. It is one of many committees set up by the Wickremesinghe administration that faces a serious challenge in the coming year.

Watch | Why have Sri Lanka’s tea exports plummeted?

The Sri Lankan economy is expected to contract by 9.2% this year and a further 4.2% in 2023. The government hoped to receive a $2.9 billion IMF package by the end of the year. But the Fund has only conditionally agreed to provide the facility, depending on assurances from Sri Lanka’s diverse creditors. While the government is talking to its lenders on restructuring its loans, it has some distance to go before securing IMF support.

Meanwhile, as the cost of living soars and discontent grows among the people, especially the poor, all eyes are on the government for urgent relief. The last time the economic pain of ordinary citizens was ignored, it did not end well for those in power. Sections of the population who were already vulnerable, like the Malaiyaha Tamils, have been pushed to the edge with this crisis. “An entire generation’s health, education and future is in question,” says Nikalasmary. “For years and years, we have been talking about how bad things are for our community. Can we not break free from this reality?”

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