“Six feet of land”, says Jothi*, drawing an imaginary rectangle above the ground, “is all that really belongs to us, to be buried after death”.
Like most labourers working in Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, she does not have even an inch of land she can call her own.
Toiling for nearly two centuries, plantation Tamils — brought down by the British from Tirunelveli, Tiruchi, Madurai and Thanjavur in the early nineteenth century — have been contributing consistently to Sri Lanka’s economy. But a majority of the several thousand faceless labourers behind the world-famous Ceylon tea are till date, landless.
The plantation or upcountry Tamils, who make up for about five per cent of the island nation’s population, live in the line rooms that the British constructed for their forefathers – for which they have no papers confirming ownership — and struggle, leading a hand-to-mouth existence, just like their ancestors did.
It is in this context that President Mahinda Rajapaksa’s 2012 Budget speech offered some hope — the government would allocate two acres to unemployed youth for cultivation, he had said. In the absence of any visible follow-up action during the last year, even the little hope that plantation workers initially had, is on its way out.
Queried on the status of the initiative, Sri Lankan Cabinet Minister for Plantations Mahinda Samarasinghe told The Hindu : “We have had some meetings in this regard, chaired by Economic Development Minister Basil Rajapaksa. The process of giving away land to the youth will begin soon.”
The idea, he said, was to give the land on a 30-year lease agreement to unemployed youth to ensure a source of income for them, and also cultivation of uncultivated land.
Even as some in the plantation Tamil community fear that having said this, the government might privilege Sinhalese youth for the land allocation over plantation workers — the most socially-backward community in Sri Lanka — Mr. Samarasinghe said his Ministry had recommended that plantation workers “also be included” in the scheme.
According to him, the President, in his 2012 Budget speech, made in Sinhala, had said 27,000 acres (about 11 hectares) of uncultivated land had been identified for the purpose. “But while translating that to English, some reports misinterpreted that and wrongly quoted him as having said 37,000 hectares,” Mr. Samarasinghe said.
However, an English translation of the President’s Budget speech in 2012, accessed on www.priu.gov.lk states:
“We have identified around 37,000 hectares of land that are not being used, in the plantation sector. As these lands have not been put into productive use since the privatization of plantation land in the year 1992, I propose to take steps to enter into alternate 30 year lease arrangements, having demarcated 2 acre blocks from such identified lands to be distributed among smallholders.”
A group of local youth from the community, meanwhile, has begun an awareness campaign that seeks to mobilise plantation Tamils on the issue of land rights, ahead of the elections to the Central Province in September. They will urge the government to allocate to plantation workers two acres for cultivation, and 20 perches for housing.
“It is not easy for the labourers here to organise a protest. The unions here have strong political party leanings. The primary objective of this campaign is to build awareness among workers about their land rights,” said D.F. Suren, who is a school teacher in the nearby Matale town.
“Our great grand fathers also came here from India, as labourers. A few in our generation, who could pursue higher education, have other jobs today. But much of the community remains exactly where it was two centuries ago,” said Mohan Raj, a young social science teacher.
The group, including youngsters living in various plantations, has been speaking to families, telling them that they could highlight this issue when candidates come home during election campaign.
Sivasubramanian Nagan (61), who retired from the plantations, is an enthusiastic participant in the campaign, directing the youngsters to put up posters at strategic locations.
“Land ownership is very crucial now. The plantation sector is not like before, these workers cannot be assured of jobs forever. Without land, they will be helpless in future,” said Mr. Nagan, who has earlier led a trade union for plantation workers. “It was not so politicised then.”
Land rights have to be seen also in the larger context of the life of plantation workers. Labourers do not get called for work every day, as much depends on the weather. Watawala is said to receive the highest amount of rainfall in Sri Lanka.
Labourers like Jothi, a “plucker”, get paid a basic wage of Rs. 450, usually by the weight of the tea leaves they manage to pluck. Some plantations demand a minimum weight ranging between 16 or 18 kg.
The leaves are subsequently processed and packaged at the factory, to finally land in the tea cup of virtually every Sri Lankan.
With this, and the salary advances proving meagre at a time when Sri Lanka’s cost of living is increasing several fold, many families resort to loans from local financial companies, often getting trapped in debt.
The workers cannot challenge their employers or demand higher wages, given the highly feudal administrative set up of plantations, where the fear of losing one’s job is constant.
Moving out is not seen as an option, either. Shakti*, doing her A-levels (equivalent of class XII in India), said: “This is where our family has been right from the beginning and despite that we don’t have land or ownership rights. Imagine our plight if we move out. Who will give my parents jobs? Where will we stay?”
The financial burden and the lack of a sense of belonging have left the community feeling rather vulnerable. Some workers even feel that the prolonged neglect of this community is endangering the plantation economy itself, which might soon lose its labour force to greener pastures.
“I see young people flocking to the garment factories every day. The next generation does not want to take this kind of neglect anymore,” said Kuppusamy Lakshman (73), formerly a plantation worker, now working in the garment sector.
The weakening of the trade union movement has only made matters worse, said Linus Jayatileke, convenor, People’s Campaign for Estate Workers’ Land Rights.
Sri Lanka’s old Left worked in a context where the ruling bourgeoisie parties feared that the plantation workers and the industrial workforce would come together.
“The Lanka Sama Samaja Party (LSSP, a Left party founded in 1935, currently with the ruling coalition) tried to integrate the labourers, but eventually got engrossed in parliamentary politics, striking alliances with the bourgeoisie parties in power,” said Mr. Jayatileke, who has been working with trade unions since the 1970s.
Many of the senior labourers in plantations noted that unions such as that of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), which once worked for the rights of plantation labourers, does little today, particularly after becoming allies to the government.
Such political affiliations not only weakened the trade union movement, but also resulted in plantation workers being left just where they started off.
That is precisely why people like Mr. Jayatileke underscore the need for plantation workers to negotiate for their Sri Lankan identity. Being able to own a piece of land, he said, can go a long way in shaping that identity and cultivating a sense of belonging.
(*Some names have been changed on request)
This article has been re-edited for clarity.