Plantation Community: A status revisit

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Disenfranchisement of the Indian Origin plantation workforce in the year 1948 after independence stalled the development of the ‘plantation community’ (PC) in contrast to other communities in the country. Memoirs and research papers on labour movement and Trade union struggle of Plantation workforce is not new and many have attempted to describe the disenfranchisement of the PC and its impact for years. Basic human needs were at a distant dream for many decades until it became an eventuality rather than addressed through a concerted efforts by way of Political power and development imperative. With democracy in existence in the country for a long time; how did the plantation community miss the fortunes of democracy and development to be on par with others in the country? This needs deliberations if not a palpable research. I have seen in the recent past writings in Tamil on various sector approach be it on the lines of local governance, access to provincial power and decision making, influence at the central level on the governance part and economic emancipation and social security on the other hand. However, little efforts have been on to inform the readers of English dailies so that ‘others’ would also know fully well the dilemmas of development realities of the PC.

This attempt is to bring about issues and impediments surrounding the PC for their transformation that is currently viewed as need and sometimes a right by many if not for the rulers and their own political leaders. I am using the term ‘Plantation Community’ (PC) with much reluctance because to my knowledge there is no ethnic community defined in terms of their association with economic activity elsewhere in the world. Labour (in)-volunteer migration during the British colonial rule has taken place similar to that of Indian origin workers in the tea and rubber plantations in other parts of the world at the same time but those populations were not termed with their economic activity. In Fiji where Indo Fijians constitute one third of the population are called Indo- Fijians and not Plantation labour or sugarcane community. In Sri Lanka the migrated Indian origin labour force for some reason not known to many are termed with their economic activity (plantation community) that has stigmatized the large section of the Ethnic Tamils of Indian origins impeding their progress. However, I am compelled to use the term for larger understanding of the readers if not as a political term.

The politics of the PC is dominated by the trade union system from the beginning of its involvement in national politics dating back to 1930s. On the advice of Pundit Jawarhalal Nehru the Indian Community in Sri Lanka formed the ‘Ceylon Indian Congress’ that was much based in Colombo comprising the wealthier business men to address their own. Later in order to increase the membership and sustain its enthusiasm with localised approach the CIC was extended to the plantations forming the Ceylon Indian Congress Labour Union (CICLU). This is not the first trade union in the estates so to say. The first trade union in the plantation emerged in 1931 called All Ceylon Estate Labour Federation in Hatton. I don’t want to go in to history of the trade unions here but want to point out that political movement showed up as early as in 1940s with the formation of the CICLU and its first President was Late S. Thondaman paving way for effective political participation of the ‘Plantation Community’. From then onwards the PC has been in politics obsessed by trade union imperatives rather than from a democratic perspective, political emancipation and development realities. That does not mean that political ambitions are least addressed over the last several decades. More important and burning issues took the attention of the trade unions such as wage, better living conditions, health and other amenities that were closely associated with the plantation system. As a result, continuity of the plantation system and the workforce with mundane life style impeded any opportunities for upward mobility.

Sustaining the tea and rubber industries was then a necessity for foreign exchange fetching a good market all over the world. Influence of the trade unions on the estate became very much in relation to day today work. Some of the plantations were able to forge an effective working model with the workforce leading to high profits and shared benefits. However question of sustaining the industry with profits and shared benefits remain largely a challenging task. There are different reasons attributed for this mainly from the RPCs. High labour costs and maintenance of non-working population by the limited productive labour force in the plantations has been few of the complaints by the RPCs unaddressed. On the other hand burden remains with the RPCs though not effectively to support the welfare of the estate residents that continue to be obscure ending up with no body’s responsibility.

In a seminar sometime back on ‘Facilitating the Service Provision to Estate Communities’ one of the prominent planters shared a point that out of the total resident population of around 800,000 only 200,000 are employed in the plantations. There is an increasing attempt by the youth to exit the plantation economic activities finding greener pastures driving the plantations to a greater risk.  While the figures may not be so accurate but what it can indicate is that there is an increasing tendency to migrate out of the ‘plantation system’. In the same seminar it was brought to the notice out of a research project that the term ‘estate Tamils’ demotivates the young to be within the plantation system.

When inquiring in to the issues hindering transformation of the PC to cling into development mode if not to attain on ‘par status’ with the rest in the country, the above gave a background setting of the PCs and their life. Pursuing the question I would like to ponder in to several parameters in line with the imperatives that need political overhauling with some dedication and prudence.

Development of a Community will be advanced by many factors; key among them will be education, resourceful skills of the population, access to land and capital for economic activity, access to meaningful employment in the region or elsewhere and many more. If one looks at these factors or more and map with the plantation system it becomes obvious that the PC is far behind in reaching these critical factors. Interventions on social welfare in this sector population have always been external in a supply mode with a dependency syndrome. Basic human needs such as food, housing and shelter have been addressed by an external intervention through structured institutional framework with the participation of management and the state apparatus for many years. Upon fulfilment of such basic necessities the plantation management moves to justify a ‘content workforce’ expecting returns in the form of high productivity and obedient labour force. Trade unions play a justifiable role in maintaining that order with a ‘monitor’ role bridging the worker and management. This was the style in the plantation system over several decades. Supply of the basic needs and Improvement to the living conditions through support to housing repairs, common water supply schemes and provision of health through less qualified medical attendants has been recognized as the ‘development’ of the PC.

Despite its limitations and barriers, few ambitious individuals/families of the population have managed to move up in the ladder by enhancing their education or moving out at very young age in search of jobs and later ending up as entrepreneurs, (not all those who migrated outward were successful entrepreneurs any way).

Work in the plantations was the major employment opportunity, other economic activities mainly related to value chains of the tea or plantation economy, and trade provided livelihood to larger section of the ethnic Tamils. Tea plantation regions were in geographically contiguous territories and therefore the options for other industries or investment in other productive sectors were limited and not forthcoming.

With the limited opportunities for economic and social emancipation, the PC heavily depended on the social welfare deliver that entrenched them to the economic livelihood making matters worse. In this backdrop the TU were only the option for the PC to look upon to solve their grievances on employment also that were associated with social and cultural life. A subscription that over the years saw a steady increase was the fees paid to the TU for their services to the workers.

As indicated above interventions to the social welfare development of the PC was done with external support through a Social Welfare Programme supported by Norway and Netherland. During the early period of their investment the plantation was managed by two principal agencies of the state namely Janata Estate Development Board (JEDB) and SLSPCP Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation. A social welfare programme was embedded within these corporations known as Social Welfare Programme funded by the donors. Aftermath of the plantations privatised under 23 RPCs a new structure emerged in the name of the Plantation Housing & Social Welfare Trust in the year 1992 incorporated in Sri Lankan under Companies Act No 17 of 1982. Later in the year 2002 this was renamed as Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT). This is a tripartite entity with Government of Sri Lanka, Plantation management companies and Trade unions being main stakeholders. Main interventions were done in relation to the labour productivity in the health sector that included basic health services, maternal and child health and some curative health care. This was to keep the labour force within the reach and control of the management often called ‘Plantation Raj’.

Considerable improvement however was made in the education of the children especially primary education. During the initial phases of SWP and later during the period of PHSWT large sums of donors’ funds by Swedish government were invested for developing the required infrastructure mainly targeting primary and secondary school education. This lead to increased enrolment and reduction of dropout rates of school going children. Significant improvement achieved in the primary and middle level secondary education did not transform to higher secondary due to many weaknesses of the system lacking qualified and well trained teachers and political interferences in academic management. Moreover the economic influence impeding the preference for continuation of education within the plantations manifest even today. These improvements had positive and negative influence of the plantations. With the secondary education attainments high degree of reluctance has been observed among youth especially male to work within the plantations. At the same time they lacked sufficient skills for a decent employment elsewhere frustrating them. Those who attain primary education however and discontinue had economic impediments to continue and or access to better quality secondary education within their locality.

I do not wish to dwell in to success or failures of this internalized intervention on health and primary education and their impact on the population. There were so many others who have dwelled in to such analysis. I wish to point out how these programmes were to secure and sustain the labour of the estates with no long-term intervention for a growth and development of the community or the region that will bring about the positive change for Development. However it will be important to understand that these efforts addressed and supported to sustain minimum basic human needs that resulted in the welfare of the community and also sustain the industry but no long term vision for these regions and residents who are called as ‘Plantation Community’.

It can be seen that all the social welfare programmes aimed at sustaining the tea industry on a ‘plantation raj’ approach with management taking the lead role in decision making on all matters of policy and implementation. Thereby the dominance of the owners of the plantation ensured that there was no defection from the ‘rules and regulations’ of the plantation raj system. The scope for economic independence was limited with such approach with the explicitly support from the state and implicit blessings from the Trade unions attached to the plantations. The state support was to retain the industry that still fetches foreign exchange though not the highest and shy away from the burden of finding/developing alternative economic opportunities. It will be easy to handle a discontent labour force rather than a larger section of a population with no viable alternative livelihood opportunities’. Trade Union implicitly supported for their survival and more particularly the political participation of the PC was through the Trade Unions and the Trade Unions would never dilute those contours that support their dominance.

It is abundantly clear that the economic development and social empowerment of the PC has been affected with above predicament in place for a long time with no concrete efforts by any of the main actors involved with the PC. To make matters worse is the political regression with no vision and or concerted efforts to readdress the situation.

With to my indicated position in the first paragraphs of this memoir that a complete overhauling of political dimensions for the PC is needed for a holistic development of the community, I would further like to rationalize my supposition from as seen prevalent with the PC that needs a change preferably immediate.

Political determinants to development and its status

A retired civil servant and a senior writer Neville Jayaweera in one of his memoirs analysed the two main types of political leaderships. Most commonly seen are those who ride on the popular mood of the masses to attain his or her goals of power and then keep it going without making changes. He describes that such leaderships are like surfers ride the waves. They keep changing as per the mood of the masses and take advantage of the state apparatus to keep such a mood without seeking to change it. This type of politicians are common in south Asian region. There is No vision for the masses they seek to dominate and rule upon or is there any effort to transcend to bring about positive changes in the life of the people. On the other hand the masses too are weak and only seek to fulfil their immediate needs. As a general measure it can be seen that political offices and officials chose to address reparation of existing housing, provision of water lines and sanitation facilities, support child care centres, support to worship places, support youth clubs with sportswear and materials. These are hand-outs that are given by politicians local and others to keep the momentum going for them. Therefore one could see that in the plantation regions it is rather easy to ride on popular mood since the masses do not seek to transform their life in to higher order and bring about a change within them and the society. There seems to be NO PUSH from the community. Long isolation and ‘plantation raj’ system of governance have suppressed the community from voicing their rights or concerns and deprived status. Their popular demand will be to address their immediate needs rather than to seek for interventions that will transform their life to higher order. On the other hand the TUs and or political movements be it a national or regional have not raised a discontent (except during disenfranchisement period) in the line of development needs and political emancipation of the community. This situation allows the political leaderships to keep riding on the PC as far as they are ‘estate workers’ and stay closed in isolation.

The second type of leadership Neville Jayaweera enunciates is the one who is caught with a vision for a civilised society and attempt objectify it. Such leadership will have a long vision for a transformed society embracing rights and values. Of-course he articulates such leadership strives for democratic values. In the case of plantation it will be democracy, growth and development and many more dealing with basic human needs (hierarchy of needs). There is always a gap between the vision and popular mood that the leadership has to fight to thin the gap. For this lot of mobilization and sacrifices are needed to achieve the vision. Absence of such a long vision and development goal propelled by political leadership makes the PC still weak and isolated. PC being a distinct ethnic community with a short history of 200 years in this country suppressed over decades suffers to get on par with other communities if not to attain a status of developed.

Going by the status quo it is visible that there has not been a great effort to change the political trajectory to bring about a rapid development mode where human resources skills are developed to match with global process and or improve human skills and social status of the ‘estate work’. The former approach will need a comprehensive effort making the economy of those regions of plantation with viable alternatives. In such a situation, the importance of the ‘plantation industry’ may diminish leading to reduction in trade union action. Obviously, this may reduce the effective influence the TU has on people and sizable income that manages the TU offices and those employed. In such a situation TU will be replaced with Political ‘political movements’ if they are to take the lead in the transformation emphasising the second type of the political leadership that was highlighted in this paper. Such an initiation needs a strong vision with comprehensive long term planning getting inputs from a cross section of expertise and civil societies.

On the other hand, it is also better to revamp the tea industry with state and RPCs to improve the productivity and shared returns with an appropriate plantation management system. This shall envisage a system that more importantly disconnect the ‘labour’ and management on all issues of social welfare, development and local governance and have only working relations to improve the industry. This situation may continue to go on the popular mood of the masses yet influence some positive changes that can have an impact on the life of the plantations. Since TU will still survive with their influence to make this change, it can still be a viable approach to support the PC for their development though will not be the best model.