Hill Country Plantation People in Sri Lanka…
Note on Discussion with UN Team of Secretary General, visited to Sri Lanka
(Aug 31-Sep 02, 2016)
Sri Lanka has come to occupy an important place in the international politics of late. International attention and intervention have focused on the reconciliation process, constitutional reform, restoration of human rights, rule of law and integrated development which have followed the political change of 2015. In this background, the United Nations’ (UN) monitoring and intervention become important. And so is the recent visit of a UN Team headed by UN Secretary General Ban Ki Moon. In this context it becomes of paramount importance to study whether the people of all communities in a plural society such as Sri Lanka, participate in such exercises, whether their rights and aspirations are reflected, and whether their decisions given prominence. As far as the Hill Country Plantation people, with specific reference to the plantation Tamil community, are concerned, they have been historically marginalized from such exercises, though, of course, the sessions of the UN in the recent past have given a serious consideration to the problems of this community.
An opportunity had been afforded to the Human Development Organization to present views on behalf of the civil societies and NGOs for the attention of the UN Team of Secretary General. Mr. P.P. Sivapragasam, President of HDO put forward the following matters.
The Hill Country Planation Tamil people are an important minority community in the social, economic and political structure of Sri Lanka. Although they are subjected to various form of discrimination and disparities, human rights violation etc historically, and also, although they are 1.5 million of the total population of Sri Lanka. This itself makes it an important duty for the international organizations such as UNO to give a serious thought to the question whether the rights and aspirations of these people are taken seriously.
The government of good governance which has prioritized the constitutional reform, reconciliation mechanism, economic structural reform, rule of law, development process etc. has to ensure that the minority community, and particularly the hill country people are absorbed in to the proposed mechanism. They have to be given their due status as citizens of this country rather than being looked at merely as workers.
The political, economic, social, cultural rights etc. of the hill country plantation people have to be guaranteed in the constitutional reform. At the sometime they should be rid of ethnic religious, nationality and gender disparities and their fundamental human rights be ensured.
Poverty: They are the most poverty stricken people in the country. Ironically, a Household Income & Expenditure Survey Statistics in 2012/13 (HHI&ES) stated that the poverty level among these people has shown 10.9%, (HCI) while compared to year 2006/07 which was 32 percent, the credulity of which was open to question and criticism.
Land & Housing: Land and Housing rights of the hill country plantation people is another controversial issue. 67.8% (HHI&E Survey 2012/2013) of them still live in line rooms which were built during the colonial era. At the same time even these lines and the land space on which the lines stand are not given to their ownership. The government of good governance implementing housing projects for the plantation workers is laudable. However the process needs to be accelerated and expanded. The other problem affecting these people is their language right. The failure to appoint adequate Tamil officers in the government institutions in the areas of their predominance has made their condition pathetic.
Access to public services: there are over 200,000 people to be covered by the each Ambagamuwa and Nuwara Eliya Divisional Secretariats in the Nuwara Eliya District. This has become stumbling block to the Tamil people of these areas to accessing state services. Article 33 of the Pradeshiya Sabha Act of Sri Lanka prevents these people from being benefited from the local authority services. This emphasizes the need for an amendment to the Act.
Education & Health: The right of the plantation people to education and health services are relatively backward. Although the present government has made an allocation in the budget at national level, as far as the hill country areas are concerned, there are a few 1 AB schools to teach science and equipped with residential facilities. For example 60% of the population in the Nuwara Eliya District are Tamil. But while there are only 7 1AB School for them, there are 19 Sinhala medium schools (2013). This disparity is notable. The plantation medical health service should be upgraded to conform to National and International standards. Notably the children’s and women’s reproductive health aspect is backward. At present a vast majority of the plantation medical institutions are manned by Estate Medical Assistants, who sometimes perform as doctors. This has become a challenge to the national stream.
Right to Livelihood: The right of the hill country plantation people to livelihood is a fundamental right. Their daily wage is determined on the basis of collective agreement. That too has not been renewed for the last 2 years resulting in the freeze of their wage. Negotiation between the trade unions and the employer’s federation has failed. It’s very much in question whether the parties follow the corporate Social Responsibility or the Code of UN Global Compact. Plantation workers are the lowest paid as far as this country is concerned-receiving the lowest daily wage compared to their counterparts in the other sectors and even the non-formal sector workers. This has pushed them into eternal poverty.
There are various obstacles and discrimination on these people’s way to access to development services. It’s tied to social, economic and political rights. But as many plantations are company managed or state agency (JEDB/SLPC) managed, there are short comings and setbacks. to the national development project’s and development benefits-reaching or the plantation people reaching such benefits.
Structural change of the plantation sector is the much talked about subject of late. Should the workers be identified as free labour, it could be achieved only if their fundamental rights are guaranteed constitutionally.
(This Article was Published in Sri Lankan National News Papers..Thinakaran 6/9/2016, Thinakural 13/9/2016 and Social Medias)