Prime Minister Narendra Modi on Friday hailed Sri Lanka’s plantation workers as the “indispensable backbone of Sri Lanka’s thriving tea industry.”
Addressing a huge gathering of upcountry Tamils in Norwood here, the Prime Minister said while the people world over knew of Sri Lankan tea, it was less known that it was the workers’ sweat and toil that made Ceylon Tea the brew of choice for millions.
“You and I have something in common…I have a special association with tea,” Mr. Modi, the first Indian Prime Minister to address the community, said to thunderous applause.
An official source estimated nearly 35,000 people at the grounds that brimmed with men, women and children waving Indian and Sri Lankan flags. Thousands more reportedly did not make it to the venue as the narrow roads on the hills, newly carpeted, were clogged hours ahead of the meeting in which President Maithripala Sirisena and Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe also participated.
Buses were stopped to ease traffic congestion, and thousands walked to the grounds, many of them covering well over 5 km. “I left home at 6 in the morning to get here,” said Kaveri Kandasamy, who came from a neighbouring village.
“Though I was born in in Sri Lanka, I feel strongly for India; my parents were from Tiruchi. I am here to see the Indian Prime Minister and hope his visit will show us some light,” said the 75-year-old, who plucked tea from the age of 11.
Of recent Indian origin
Distinct from the Tamils of Sri Lanka’s north and east, where the island nation’s civil war broke out, ‘upcountry Tamils’ are of recent Indian origin. Almost two centuries ago, the British transported them to the island to work in the plantations. “We will never forget leaders like Saumiyamoorthy Thondaman, who worked hard your upliftment and economic prosperity,” Mr. Modi said, referring to the late iconic leader of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress.
Evoking the ‘Ramayana’, and quoting from ancient Tamil texts, Mr. Modi pointed to shared history and ties. Upcountry Tamils, he said, captured the true spirit of the Kaniyan Pungunranar saying ‘ Yaathum oore, yavarum kelir ’ (Every town is our hometown and all people are our kin) by making Sri Lanka their home.
India, which is currently building 4,000 houses for estate workers, will construct an additional 10,000 homes, Mr. Modi announced. Many upcountry Tamils continue to live in cramped, British-era line rooms and an estimated 1,60,000 families await proper housing. India will also expand its ambulance service in the island to cover all provinces.
Earlier, speaking at the UN Vesak Day celebrations in Colombo PM Modi announced that an Air India direct service connecting Colombo and Varanasi will be launched in August to deepen Buddhist and Hindu ties. Emphasising India’s commitment to Sri Lanka’s economic prosperity, he said that India would continue to invest in the island to enhance development cooperation.