Rarely have so many provided so much for so little as the Indian Tamils who work Sri Lanka's tea estates. Yet now the plantations have been nationalised, Brooke Bond and Liptons have been sent packing, and government managers have replaced the company superintendents. Is life for the Tamil estate workers any better?
Wages were very low and in their payment there were gross irregularities which continued into the 1920s and persist — in attenuated forms — to the present day. Housing was atrocious. Disease was rampant. Mortality was high.
The darkness began to grow a little less fearsome when in the 1860s coffee, succumbing to the coffee blight, steadily yielded place to tea. Tea is labour-intensive. On estates in Sri Lanka, the famous ‘two-leaves and a bud’ have to be plucked all through the year. There was therefore the growing imperative of a resident labour force. Barrack-type rectangular sheds which came to be called ‘coolie lines’ were constructed. Largely migratory in the coffee phase, South Indian labour began to permanently settle on the estates. This marked the beginning of the ‘Indo-Ceylon Problem’.
Sri Lanka attempted to solve it unilaterally in 1948. In that year Sri Lanka, after four and half centuries of foreign rule, felt the first winds of a new freedom. But, tragically, it did not touch all her people. In the population — then about 7 million — some 800,000 were classified as Indian Tamils only because they were the last of several waves of immigrants from India into the island. By the Citizenship Act of 1948 these, almost to a man, were declared non-citizens and by the 1949 Franchise Act were deprived of the vote.
The Age of Statelessness had begun. So long as Nehru lived, India had held firmly to the position that the 19th century immigrants were the responsibility of Sri Lanka. However, only a few months after his death in 1964, the two Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka and India signed the first of the Repatriation Agreements. The second followed in 1974. Estimating that in 1964 there were at least 975,000 stateless persons in Sri Lanka, the Prime Ministers agreed that India would give citizenship to, and take away, 600,000 while Sri Lanka would give citizenship to, and keep, 375,000. The Great Uprooting was the consequence of a game of numbers played in high places.
For most of the workers, it was not to be repatriation, but expatriation, and in some cases deportation. Even in a world where there has been so much else to hit the headlines, it is surprising that the Agreements, which heralded the largest organized worker migration of the 20th century, have gone so largely unnoticed.
Why, it may legitimately be asked, have the estate Tamils been subjected to so much hardship, humiliation and discrimination? To them, more than to any other single section of the country’s inhabitants, Sri Lanka owes a debt for having given the country so much for so little. Every year tea is the largest single eamer of foreign exchange which the country so direly needs. Taxes on tea account for a large percentage of government revenue: 8, 13 and 28 per cent in 1976, 1977 and 1978 respectively. By means of these taxes there can be no doubt that the estate workers help to finance the whole range of welfare services in the country. These include free education even for the children of the ruling economic and political elites in Sri Lanka’s most prestigious schools (recall the hullabaloo of the Old Boys when it was suggested a few years ago that ‘Royal College was a disgraceful howler in Republican Sri Lanka!) and in the Universities. It would also do us all good to remember that the imported luxury goods — currently abundant in the country because our Government has bowed low to the World Bank’s dictates of an open door economy — are goods paid for in part by the foreign exchange earned by the forgotten tea worker.
Yet what does the tea worker get in return? The highest illiteracy rate of all sectors in the island, the highest maternal and infant mortality rates, the highest rates of malnutrition, poor water supply, sanitation, housing. Of this last (at least in order to offer some evidence that all the rest can similarly be supported by figures) let us cite the 1980 UNICEF finding that the proportion of housing under 250 sq. ft to total housing was 64 per cent in the estate sector, 28 in the villages and 27 in the towns and cities. It is not rare for us to meet, in the estate line-rooms, families of five or six members living, cooking, eating, sleeping, bearing and rearing children in one room 10 by 12 ft, with maybe a front or back verandah 3 by 12 ft.
Basically, the answer lies in the secular economic, political and cultural isolation of the Tamil tea workers from everyone else in the country.
The British began the isolationist process; how deliberately and with what forethought of its disastrous consequences, it is difficult to say. Throughout the 19th and well into the 20th century not only was the estate isolated from the village but, through a series of vicious laws, regulations and customs, each estate was carefully sealed off from every other.
These isolationist processes gathered momentum when Sri Lanka, at the turn of this century, began to move forward to eventual constitutional independence. In fact, to isolation was added the factor of hostility, more or less overt.
Isolation and hostility could have been mitigated or even completely eliminated, indeed imaginatively transformed into open acceptance and creative integration, by four sets of forces.
The first was formed by the Sri Lanka Tamils (about 11 per cent of the population) who constitute a group as ancient in the island as the majority Sinhalese. These are the Tamils of the North and East, called for short the Jaffna Tamils (Jaffna being the capital of the Northern homelands of the Sri Lanka Tamils). In the 20th century movement towards constitutional independence, it was an elite group of Sri Lanka Tamils who assumed roles on the political stage in order to defend the Jaffna cause. They were either ignorant of, or did not think that at that time there was any need to press, the cause of the estate workers. Only in very recent years or months have the Jaffna Tamils begun to be aware that the estate Tamils and the other Tamils of 19th century Indian origin (about 9 per cent of the population) have their own problems and that these problems are very different from those of the Sri Lanka Tamils.
The second was the Trade Union Movement. In the late 1920s there was some hope that the newly emerging estate labour (Tamil) movement would link in fruitful symbiosis with the older urban (Sinhalese) unions. However, for a number of reasons these hopes did not materialize. Up to this day the estate labour movement has developed largely in unfortunate solitariness.
The third force was the Marxist. In the late 1930s the Trotskyite unions had significant success. in certain areas, in organizing the estate workers for the defence of their rights. But when war broke out in Europe, many Marxist leaders in Sri Lanka were forced to flee the country or go underground. When they returned they found that the estate workers had increasingly opted for the (Tamil) Ceylon Indian Congress. Then came the Citizenship and the Franchise Acts which made the estate workers politically and electorally expendable. Ever since, the betrayal of the estate workers by the Marxists has been the greatest and the costliest blunder of the Marxist movement in Sri Lanka.
The fourth is nationalization. This calls for a fuller comment
The Land Reform Laws of 1972 and 1975 — passed during the tenure of the Bandaranaike Government — took over the units of tea land which were over 50 acres in extent, owned either by private individuals or by companies. There was a French Revolution air about the event. Even Cuba, it was said, had not dared to be so radical in land expropriation.
More than 60 per cent of all tea lands and all the larger estates have been taken over by the State. More than 50 per cent of the tea lands taken over are managed by two large public sector corporations: the Janatha (People’s) Estates Development Board and the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation. Gone forever, some thought, were the days of Brooke Bond, James Finlay, Lipton et al. Surplus value would no longer be drained out overseas. Democracy would replace the Superintendent’s despotic rule. There would be a much better deal for the workers. In the event, a lot of this has proved to be but wishful thinking.
On the criterion of economic productivity, nationalization has been disastrous. In the ten years preceding the first nationalization law, production exceeded 215,000 tonnes per year except in two years when it exceeded 210,009 tonnes; in the nine years after 1972, production has never exceeded 215,000 tonnes per year, in six years was below 210,000 tonnes and in three years did not even reach 200,000 tonnes. In 1980 production at 191,000 tonnes reached the lowest level recorded since 1959.
The preventable reasons for the fall in production are inefficient management and political interference in management (both being the bane of state-managed enterprises in Sri Lanka), corruption and sheer robbery, repatriation of skilled Tamil labour (under the Repatriation Agreement), demoralisation of Tamil workers and poor labour relations. The forces over which Sri Lanka has no control are increase in the cost of all imported inputs, chiefly fertilizer, the continuing stranglehold exercised by the affluent countries upon the international tea market and decreasing real prices of tea.
But what of the expected social benefits of nationalization and the social revolution which the idealists expected? The patterns of management are still basically the same, though a very few Sri Lankan planters’ wives may now occasionally descend from their little-England mansions on the top of the hill to the UNICEF-sponsored estate creche and gingerly carry for a few moments an estate worker’s baby. In the English language the former Superintendent is now called ‘Manager’, but in Tamil and to the workers he is still the Periya Dorai (the Big Master) and his Assistant is the Sinna Dorai (the Small Master). Both dorais still live in ‘bungalows’, the middle grades such as the clerks and the medical assistants live in ‘quarters’, the workers (who are over 97 per cent of the estate populations) live in ‘line-rooms’. There is no more worker participation in management than there was at the end of the British period.
Moreover, there have been three ugly episodes of anti-Tamil communalism on the estates in the post-nationalization period of only nine years. The first took place in 1972 soon after the first Land Reform Law. The Sinhalese are by nature one of the friendliest people in the world but their lumpen elements can be easily but diabolically misled by Sinhalese racialists, who stop at nothing and are stopped by nothing — not even by the compassion, the kindness and the non-violence of Buddhism — in order to whip hatred against the Tamils up to a frenzy. ‘The estates are now ours’, they shrieked. ‘Get out!’ And the Tamil workers on many estates close to the Sinhalese villages left the estates where some of them had lived for generations — defenceless, friendless, their hearts in the dust, like a tea bush uprooted —to roam the streets of the cities and live off garbage bins. The British, if they ruthlessly exploited the workers, at least protected them from outside attack!
The second was in August 1977 in the climate of unredressed Sri Lanka Tamil grievances and the consequent ultimate demand of the Sri Lanka Tamils for a separate state of Eelam. The estate Tamils had nothing at all to do with the politics of the Sri Lanka Tamils. To the estate Tamils the cry of the Sri Lanka Tamils for a separate state was and is irrelevant and incomprehensible. Yet in August 1977 perhaps 10,000 estate families lost everything or nearly everything they had — clothes, pots and pans, precious savings converted into jewellery — during the senseless violence.
The third was as recent as August this year and seems to have been the backlash of racial clashes in the far away Eastern Province. This time the target seems to have been the estates in the Sabaragamuva Province (one of the country’s nine Provinces) — chosen perhaps because in this Province the estate often abuts the Sinhalese village. The hard core of the attackers seems to have been formed of goon squads organized by politically powerful anti-Tamil racialists, hoping to be shielded by state power. Round the racialist goons gathered the looters. 1972, 1977, 1981... When will there be the next orgy of arson, loot, assault, sometimes murder and rape? The first understandable reaction of the poor workers is flight to India, to the frontiers of the Northern Province, to the wastelands of the Eastem Province. At the moment of writing, especially after the President’s inexplicably belated but absolutely forthright condemnation of the violence on 4 September (see box), the emotions of first fear seem to be subsiding and a certain calm seems to have returned to the plantation areas.
The present Government claims that it has appreciably increased estate worker wages since it came to power in 1977. Really, there has been little, if any, increase in real wages and no increase in money wages since September 1979, though a wage rise is expected soon. Wages now stand — all extra allowances, but not overtime and overpoundage (i.e. tea leaf in excess of a minimum poundage plucked for the day), included — at Rs 14 or 38p per day for a male, and Rs 11.69 or 33p per day for a female. Not only are these wages lower than the wages paid to urban industrial workers but they, though paid once a month, are calculated on the basis of ‘no work today, no pay today’. On most estates, according to the present writer’s admittedly incomplete findings, the average number of workdays per month for the first eight months of this year has never exceeded 23, has sometimes barely reached 20, and men have had marginally less workdays than women. As in British times, the estate workers — unlike the villagers — have few supplementary sources of possible income or none at all. It is either work for the day or hunger. As in British times, women are paid less than men for the same work.
It is sometimes stated that the estate workers — despite their poverty — are still better off than the villagers in the matter of regular work, security of employment, housing, schooling, medical facilities and mothercare. Published figures provide little evidence to establish the statement However, in the view of the present writer, such comparisons are fatuous and dangerously divisive. Both — estate workers and poor peasants — suffer oppression from the prevailing system. To ask where the oppression is greater is much less important than to end it — both on the estate and in the village.
The oppression in the estate areas is proving more resistant than maybe some of us hoped in 1972. But then ten years is a very short time for even the best of governments to end the oppression built into the plantation system over a period of 150 years. Indeed, more improvements seem to have been effected over the past 10 years — in housing, basic amenities for households, schooling, care for children, take-home pay — than during the whole of the British period. Even so, many of us are profoundly disatisfied with the quantum and the rate of progress. Furthermore, in many places the improvements seem to be directed not so much to better the lot of the Tamil working population but to attract new Sinhalese worker families into the estates. The secular alienation of the Tamil estate worker is still very much with us and creeping communalism is heightening it
The Trade Unions can do much more than they have done in the past Voluntary organizations — with no aspirations of increasing membership like the Unions or of capturing power like the Political Parties — can also do more if they can work as allies with the Unions and the Parties. Together with the workers we have all also to discover the revolutionary potential of the four major world religions authentically and vitally present in Sri Lanka, and in Sri Lanka alone — be it noted — among all the countries of the world.
Nationalization— all told — has been a good thing. It is unthinkable that the commanding heights of a country’s economy should be left in the hands of foreigners. But nationalization should be looked upon as a challenge to the nation — for greater production, better conditions of living, more worker participation, more solidarity between the Tamil workers and the Sinhalese peasants (against the machinations of politicians seeking to divide in order to rule them), a freer and juster society.
The young estate worker, Balakrishnan, who rose to speak at the conclusion in July this year of a series of Leadership Seminars conducted for a mixed group of Tamil estate workers and Sinhalese village youths of both sexes at Satyodaya Centre, Kandy, was absolutely correct when he said: ‘Before we came to these classes, we on the estates thought that the people in the village had it fine: land, happiness, freedom. Now we know that there is oppression also in the village. So the villagers must have thought that we had heaven on the estates: free houses, free schools, free dispensaries, work every day for good pay. Now we know the truth. The future lies in our going forward together.’
Yes, together, with our people and our friends — at home and abroad.