200 years on, no end to sufferings of hill country Tamils in the Nilgiris 

Around five lakh Tamils of Indian origin were sent back to India after the country and Sri Lanka signed pacts in 1964 and 1974. Even after these many years, the repatriates in the Nilgiris still live in “colonies” that lack electricity, housing and running water

Updated - November 10, 2023 03:35 pm IST

Published - November 10, 2023 12:36 am IST

Tea estate workers have been residing for more than 50 years in the TANTEA housing that lacks basic amenities.

Tea estate workers have been residing for more than 50 years in the TANTEA housing that lacks basic amenities. | Photo Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy

Two centuries since the first Tamils of Indian-origin were taken to Sri Lanka, to work on British coffee estates, their fight for the right to a life of dignity and equality continues in Sri Lanka as well as in Tamil Nadu. Known as “hill country Tamils”, these people of Indian-origin, mostly lower caste labourers, were first taken to Sri Lanka in 1823.

As the coffee plantations were blighted by a disease, the British switched to tea cultivation in the 1860s, says M. Chandrasekaran, former South Indian secretary of the National Conference of Repatriates and general secretary of the Hill Country People’s Repatriates Rehabilitation Association. Subsequently, as the Sinhalese people resented the growing Tamil population, India and Sri Lanka began negotiations to “repatriate” a significant population of the hill country Tamils to India.

TANTEA opened

The Sirimavo-Shastri Pact, signed in 1964, and the Sirimavo-Gandhi Pact, signed a decade later (both between the heads of Sri Lanka and India), led to the repatriation of around five lakh Sri Lankan Tamils, who were re-settled in parts of Tamil Nadu, Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh, Mr. Chandrasekaran says.

The Tamil Nadu government set up the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Limited (TANTEA) in the Nilgiris and Valparai for the livelihood of the returnees. P. Krishnan, 72, who was born at Hatton in Sri Lanka’s Nuwara Eliya district, remembers his journey to India as a 19-year-old in 1970 with his family. “We were immediately tasked with clearing forests around Coonoor for the TANTEA estates to be set up,” says Mr. Krishnan, who has retired from TANTEA, but still lives in the estate housing at Coonoor.

Watch | Why are tea estate workers in Tamil Nadu worried? | Video Credit: M. Sathyamoorthy

Ravikumar, another resident and factory worker, complains of lack of basic amenities, including restricted road access, dilapidated toilets and non-availability of street lights in the TANTEA housing, where around 70 families have been residing for more than 50 years.

Mr. Chandrasekaran estimates that around 10 lakh Indians of Tamil origin still live in Sri Lanka. “While they have been given citizenship and voting rights, they still fight for the right to land,” he says. On the other hand, the repatriates in the Nilgiris have ensured education for their children, many of whom now hold high-paying jobs outside the estates, he says.

Better jobs needed

N. Mohanraj, 49, a supervisor of a TANTEA estate at Coonoor, who arrived in the Nilgiris in 1980, says the community has worked hard for its children to come up. “It is only with the salary from TANTEA that we have been able to educate our children,” says Mr. Mohanraj, whose two daughters have a degree. “That TANTEA is facing labour shortage indicates the Tamils need better-paying jobs than those being provided by the government,” he adds.

The repatriates have been able to assert themselves electorally. Pon Jeyaseelan, the Gudalur MLA (AIADMK) and a repatriate, says around 1.25 lakh people in Gudalur are repatriates, and at least 75,000 of them are voters. “In the Nilgiris as a whole, there are at least 2-2.5 lakh repatriates.”

Mr. Chandrasekaran says this large voter base helps the repatriates decide the outcome of election to the Assembly from Gudalur and even to the Lok Sabha from the Nilgiris.

Mr. Jeyaseelan points out that even after over 50 years since their resettlement in the Nilgiris, the repatriates still live in “colonies” that lack electricity, housing and running water. “Of the 10,000 houses in Gudalur lacking electricity, around 80% are occupied by the repatriates,” he says.

Workforce down

According to him, TANTEA’s flailing fortunes have meant that the number of workers has come down to 3,500 from a peak of 9,000. “Recently, efforts were made to return around 5,300 acres of land leased from the Forest Department, which we opposed and managed to stop.” He has been pushing for each of the 2,500 permanent employees of TANTEA to be leased two acres of TANTEA land, which will “settle” the problems permanently.

“The low price of tea, combined with TANTEA’s losses, means the repatriates can’t rely on TANTEA for their livelihood in the future. That is why, we are pushing the government for leasing each family two acres of land for farming, while the rest, near the forests, can be given back to the Forest Department,” he says. Mr. Jeyaseelan suggests that the leaseholder pay the government ₹1,000 per acre a year to make sure that the government too is compensated and has a say in how the land is used.

Sri Lanka’s gesture

While the Sri Lankan government has announced that Indian-origin workers can live in the estate housing permanently, the same benefit is not given to their counterparts in Gudalur and Valparai, alleges Mr. Jeyaseelan. Retired TANTEA employees, who don’t have any descendants working on the estates, are being asked to vacate their houses. He says the government ought to ensure that repatriates live a life of dignity as they have contributed tremendously to the economy of the Nilgiris.

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