Sunday Observer Online


Sunday, 27 February 2011





Marriage Proposals
Government Gazette

A representative example of results achieved :

Sathyavani: Blossomed, yet rooted

Sathyavani plucking tea leaves

Line rooms in Queen’s Town estate

 Komathi in a white saree as pre-school teacher

Prabath Kumara, Director, FIOH

"We have to put in more effort to make the plantation people aware of their rights. They are trapped in a circle. The very environment that they are in prevents them coming out from this fate. The plantation set-up keeps these people in semi slavery. In the villages though the people are poor, they have the sense of freedom in their minds. They at least 'enjoy' some sort of belongingness to their own community.

But, the plantation people though they have lived in Sri Lanka for generations, they still live as strangers and are alienated from other people. Hence we must involve ourselves more with these people to get them out of this trap. It is a very difficult task as these people have been in this situation for at least two centuries", said Prabath Kumara, the Director of Future in Our Hands (FIOH) a social action organisation working in Badulla.

Rightly so. the situation of the plantation people when compared to villagers and urbanites lag behind in every aspect of human and social life.

"I wanted to be an engineer, when I was at school and my sister Komathi wanted to be a teacher", said Sathyavani a 23-year-old employee at Queen's Town Estate, Badulla. Her father a watcher in the same estate died in 2002. Her mother is also an estate employee. She has two elder sisters and an elder brother who is married and lives elsewhere. Sathyavani lives with her mother and younger sister Komathi.

Sathyavani's family 17-year-old younger brother died after a prolonged illness in 2009. The family suffers from the trauma of this untimely demise.

The family lives in a line room provided by the estate. The room, in fact, the house of these workers is, in a double barack type of block consisting of twenty line rooms on both sides. The house is basically an 8' x 10' with a small 5' x 10' verandah, which is used as a kitchen. The 'house' has no windows, as all three sides are covered with the walls of the other houses. The 8' x 10' house is the place for everything.

Sathyavani's family is an average plantation family, with parents and six children. They all have to live, eat, study, sleep and do everything else in the 8' x 10' house. The total area is 25' x 15'.

"I studied at the estate school upto Grade 5 and went to Hali-Ela Tamil School in the town. I passed five subjects at the GCE O/L exam.

Then I went to work in a small factory in Colombo as we were faced with economic hardship. I had to come back to look after my younger brother who fell sick, as nobody was around. Sadly he died and my mother also fell sick. As she could not go to work every day, I decided to go to work on the estate although it was a very hard decision.

Our family was very depressed and we felt that all of our dreams were shattered. The situation was unbearable. We wonder how we survived".

"In 2007, Mydili Akka, (akka means 'sister' and used only for people who are very close to each other) from FIOH visited our house. Mydili akka was a Field Officer of FIOH. She sat with us and listened to our story. Nobody has ever listened to our plight before. By this time my brother was sick and we were faced with problems. She told us not feel desolated and advised us to form a Small Group (SG). So my sister Komathi and I formed a group with 10 others (8 women and 2 men) who live in our 'line'. Mydili akka instructed us to collect Rs. 20 from the 'members' of the group and gave us a 'pass book' to make entries of cash received. Together with Mydili akka formed 10 such groups were formed in our estate.

"We meet every month and participate in various training and awareness creation programs. Earlier we used to work round the clock. We couldn't find any spare time. But with the formation of the SGs, we were able to spare some time for community work. May be, that kind of thinking was not in our mindset earlier. We had different names for our 10 groups. It gave us a feeling that these groups were ours. We took decisions, though small ones in the beginning.

Mydili akka and the training given by FIOH encouraged us to take full control and the ownership of these groups. We decided to get all the 10 groups together and form an organisation with the guidance of FIOH. Then we formed the Integrated Community Organization (ICO) for our estate and we call it "Kalaimagal Makkal Abhivirudi Ameyppu". We were so happy. Most of the members were women.

 Sathyavani (L), Komathi

I became the Secretary of our ICO in 2008. We discussed various issues related to our life, our future and the situation of the estate.

We were able to get lots of help from FIOH and from the other government organizations for the work in the estate. Earlier we didn't know that, such kind of helps could be taken from the government organizations.

The exposures and the awareness creation programs conducted by FIOH helped us to open our eyes. We decided to open a Pre School in the estate. My sister Komathi and Nalayini were selected on merit to be teachers of the Pre School. They underwent a thorough training under an instructress attached to the Education Department. I really felt very happy for two reasons. The first is that we got a Pre School for our Estate. The second is that my sister was able to be a teacher, and fulfil her childhood dream. I am also feeling very happy, as everyone is praising the performances and the standards maintained by the Pre School. There are about fifty children studying at the Pre School now".

"Normally I go with Mydili akka to visit other groups also. She trained us in my things, such as keeping accounts of the group's money, keeping minutes of the group meetings, how to conduct a meeting, how to speak in a meeting and so on. I often go to Badulla now to attend various meetings, discussions and training. There we used to meet lots of other people from other areas, villages and other estates. Earlier we do not know anybody outside of our own estate. Now, when we come to Badulla there were lots of people who we know. We now know even the government officers, as we have met them for getting some support for activities in our estate or as we met to make complains about the shortcomings of our estate. We meet even the Superintendent of our estate to 'discuss' various community problems and needs. They know what we do now and they listened to us and give whatever help they could. Earlier only the trade union leaders used to meet the Superintendent and we used to tell the trade union leaders of our problems. They all were men. Now because of the ICO we, most of us are women deal with the authorities".

"I used to reflect on my mother's life. She too was an estate worker. But she didn't have any of these opportunities. We remember she worked round the clock at home and in the estate. She hardly had gone out of the estate. I feel so sorry about her".

"One thing happened in my life, rather in my family, I never forget. That is the illness and the untimely demise of my younger brother. We all were in a state of shock. But, hundreds if not thousands of people were gathered around our house on the funeral day. The whole estate had not witness that size of gathering earlier. Even though we were very sad, we also realise the enormous support we get, just because of being with the people through SGs, ICOs an CLO. It was a tremendous strength, when we were really in need".

"Another thing happened. All the ICOs used to meet at the FIOH office and eventually had formed an apex body, the Cluster organisation (CLO). As there are many ICOs in this apex body, we call it The Planation Community Development Forum (PCDF). This is an unbelievable situation. All the money that FIOH got for the work of Small Groups, ICOs and CLO is now managed by us! We plan our work. The money is transferred to our (CLO/PCDF) bank account. In June this last (2010) I was elected by the representatives of ICOs as the Secretary of CLO. First of all I couldn't believe it. I remember the every second of this event and in a way I was surprised too. I along with the Treasurer and the Chairmen of the PCDF, who were from the different ICOs, authorise and sign the cheques to obtain money of the work. I was only an ordinary estate worker. Though I had dreams to come up with my education, the harsh realities that we were encountering made them shattered. I was literally confined to the estate earlier. I live, work and did everything in the estate itself. We had no much connection with the outside world. But everything was changed with the visit made by Mydili Akka to our home. The whole thing, when I reflected, a wonderful story. My sister Komathi and my mother too help and encourage me, as we have already witnessed the usefulness of such engagements".

Komathi, her sister intervenes and said, "My sister and I contributed to the expenses of our home and now we manage everything. We want our mother to feel 'free' of the affairs of our home. We go to town on the pay day and bring most of the food stuffs for the whole month. It cost about Rs. 5,000-6,000". How much you contribute? I asked a question, one should not suppose to ask though! "I give Rs. 2,000, and keep another 2,000 for my needs and save another 2,000. I get only 4,000-6,000 per month. I also save some money for another thing, she said. What is that for? I asked another unwanted question. First she smiled, and then took couple of seconds, with a deep sense of emotion, she said, "I have collected Rs. 25,000 so far and I am going to buy a ring of my sister for her wedding!

K.A. Jayasinghe Perera, Senior Program Officer of FIOH said, "Plantation Community is an important economic indicator in Sri Lankan economy. But, they have been kept out of mainstream or there was no mechanism to include them into the mainstream of society. As a result for 180 years socially, culturally, economically they are somewhat backward. The situation of widows, women, school going children and school left-out youths do have lot of grievances. FIOH had been always sympathetic in looking at their problems and try to answer in a sustainable manner.

This is a unique initiative by Future In Our Hands development fund (FIOH) and first in this kind in the Plantation Sector. FIOH, with this initiative has taken steps to hand over all the responsibilities, the ownership, decision-making authority, and the available funds to the Plantation Community Development Forum. The 'beneficiaries' of the Plantation Project have now become the owners and the implementers of the program. FIOH is helping them in 'capacity building' and remain as mentor. This initiative will certainly helps to take the so-called 'target group' or beneficiaries in the plantations to new heights.

Compiled by: Lalith Abeysinghe, Senior Civil Activist, Development Consultant and former Coordinator, Sathyodaya, Kandy. [email protected]


[ The real situation of the plantation people]

The plantation people of Sri Lanka came from southern India in the 1820s to work mainly in the tea plantations. By 1931 there were 693,000 such people. They were used to clear the then thick virgin jungles and to turn them to beautiful tea plantations. They laboured immensely for the development of the tea industry, bearing the unfavourable environment and harsh weather conditions.

Immediately after the country gained independence in 1948, the then government brought the Citizenship Act and denied citizenship to the plantation people who couldn’t prove their citizenship. They became ‘stateless’ and lost all benefits that a citizen could enjoy including voting rights.

The Sirima-Shasthri Pact signed in 1964 by the Prime Ministers of Ceylon and India decided the fate of 975,000 stateless people with 300,000 and 525,000 for Ceylon and India respectively. The balance 150,000 were subjected to a separate agreement. The whole processes of repatriation of the Indians and to offer citizenship to the others was expected to be completed within 15 years. The armed conflict began between the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) and the forces disrupting this process. As a result, the Sri Lankan Government offered citizenship to the balance Indian in Sri Lanka in 1982, though the paper work had yet to be completed.


The plantation workers (about 1,050,000) record the worst social indicators in the country. The literacy rate, infant mortality rate, the lifespan, the malnutrition rate, passes at GCE O/L, A/L and the University Entrances examinations of the plantation people are the worst figures in the country. The ownership of land is the lowest among the plantation community. The wages of the plantation workers are the lowest as well in the country.

The plantation people were subjected to violent racial attacks at many times as a result of the ethnic tension which prevailed in the country, though they were not a party to the claim of a separate state by LTTE.

After even over a century the majority of them still remain plantation labourers. Most of them are confined to the tea estates where they live and work. They still work in semi slavery conditions and efforts taken to improve their situation by various groups including social action groups and trade unions have been of little avail.



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