The forgotten ‘other’

PM Modi’s address to hill-country Tamils was a nod to their importance

May 15, 2017 12:05 am | Updated December 03, 2021 05:16 pm IST

Wikimedia commons

Wikimedia commons

When Prime Minister Narendra Modi, on his recent visit to Sri Lanka , addressed a large gathering of hill-country Tamils in Norwood, Central Province, it marked a symbolic recognition at the highest level of the Indian government of the role of the “other” Tamils. He became the first Indian Prime Minister to visit the hub of hill-country Tamils. He also announced that Indian government would fund the construction of an additional 10,000 houses.

Unlike Tamils of the Northern and Eastern Provinces who had, more than a century ago, realised the importance of English education, the hill-country Tamils constitute the most backward and underprivileged community. A year ago, senior Minister Lakshman Kiriella, who also hails from the Central Province, summed up their plight when he told Sri Lanka’s Parliament that “this is the only community where the majority do[es] not own a piece of land or a house”.

Plantation workers

The hill-country Tamils owe their origins to Tamil Nadu, especially the State’s southern districts. During the 19th and early 20th centuries, their ancestors, mostly Dalits, were taken to Sri Lanka as indentured labourers to work in coffee plantations and, later, those of tea and rubber. They still work predominantly in the plantations. Yet, their contribution to the economy can be gauged from the fact that tea exports had netted $1.29 billion in 2016, accounting for 12.3% of export earnings. While the community’s leaders put the population of the hill-country Tamils at 1.6 million, the 2012 Census puts the figure at about 8,40,000 — 4% of the country’s overall population.

Despite Sri Lanka being known for its impressive development indicators, the position of the hill-country Tamils presents a stark contrast. Official statistics say that compared to the national figure of neonatal mortality rate of 11 per 1,000 births, it is 29 per 1,000 births in the estates. Likewise, stunting affects 40.2% of children living in the estates, as compared to 18% at the national level. In terms of political representation, the hill-country Tamils, once “stateless persons”, now have six Members of Parliament, of whom two are Cabinet Ministers. As per an official estimate, around 1.6 lakh houses are required to be built to replace ‘line rooms’ or barrack-type structures where the community has been living for over a century. Conscious of this basic problem, the Indian government has also come forward to build 4,000 houses, of which the first phase, covering 1,134 houses, is under way. The community would also expect New Delhi to come to its rescue for upgrading 30,000 ‘line rooms’.

Education is another area where India’s help is needed in a big way, says P. Muthulingam, a veteran civil society activist based in Kandy. Hardly 150 students of the community go to universities every year against the general intake of around 25,000. The Indian government can come out with a special scholarship programme for the community. Also, there is a dearth of Tamil instructors for vocational training.

The needs of the community are basic and simple. New Delhi should devise ways with which it can take up more projects along with Colombo for the benefit of the community, which has been neglected for long.

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