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The Sri Lanka plantation or ‘hill country’ Tamils, have been living in the island nation for more than one and a half centuries, particularly in the plantations as workers. These are among the most deprived sections in the country in terms of economic, social and political rights. The ‘hill country people’ means the people who have committed their life to sustain the production of the tea plantations. And it must be pointed out that they are Tamil speakers. There are nearly 500,000 such plantation workers.

The on-going economic crisis in Sri Lanka, though it has affected people of all races and places, has hit these plantation/ hill country people the most, not least because for many years these people have been increasingly marginalised in the country with a steady decline in rights. Ironically, it is these hill country people who are the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy — more than 50% of the foreign exchange earned by the country is from tea and rubber production and exports.

But their economic worth has not translated into social capital. Even before the economic crisis there was 35% malnutrition among the hill country people. Following the crisis, UNICEF has reported that Sri Lanka has the highest malnutrition among children in the whole of southeast Asia. No doubt the malnutrition would have increased further in the hill country too.

It is these hill country people who are the backbone of Sri Lanka’s economy — more than 50% of the foreign exchange earned by the country is from tea and rubber production and exports

Non-existent infrastructure
The roads in the plantation areas remain those laid by the British during colonial rule. Today there is no proper public transport and the plantation workers have to walk long distances to access transport facilities to procure even basic necessities. The problem is compounded for healthcare and sanitation.

Hospitals and pharmacies are few and far between and the lack of medical facilities takes its toll on pregnant women and the elderly. Similarly their residences are still line houses without any piped water or toilet facilities. During the rainy season, frequent landslides cause severe hardship with pathways blocked and children swept away.

The workers in the tea plantations have demanded for several years that their basic salary be raised to a thousand rupees. After several protests their demands were met in June this year but simultaneously the amount of tea leaves they were required to pluck every day to earn this amount was raised.

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The industries have asked the trade unions that the collected buds should weigh 20 kilos! Among women, 80% of them work in tea plucking. The tea plantation workers who give the country its famed and prized tea leaves can only drink tea by paying more, due to the on-going exploitation.

Unlike the rest of Sri Lanka, the educational levels among the hill country people are also very low. They don’t have a separate educational institution with facilities and there are not enough teachers in the available institutions. The lack of transport facilities further exacerbates the problem. As a result the hill country children crossing the 10th standard itself is a major challenge.

The plantation hill country demographic is the most backward in education in Sri Lanka. That is why getting a dignified job and salary to meet their basic needs is very challenging. Though the political parties which say they represent hill country people have for many years done many projects and joined the governments and got ministerial positions, they have not been able to solve the fundamental issues of the daily wage earning common people.

Given the deprived conditions of the hill country people, many of them have also moved into other informal jobs. Hill country people worked in shops in Colombo and in the central districts. In the last 10 to 15 years they have been going to the Middle East as well, in search of jobs. Many women from the hill country also work in Colombo’s garment industries.

Hill country women turn to microfinance because of economic stress and lack of a sustainable income or business opportunities. 28 lakh people are getting micro-finance in Sri Lanka; 84% of those are women including many hill country women.

Alcoholism is rampant among the plantation workers —  wherever you go you can see liquor shops in hill country. Consequently, women face a lot of domestic violence. Many families suffer as even the meagre incomes earned by the men are squandered on liquor. Women’s protests to close down the liquor shops have been of little avail. Unlike the rest of the country with highspeed highways and bridges, even basic facilities, poverty eradication schemes and housing schemes have not been implemented in the hill country. Many still lack essential documentation like birth certificates and identity cards.

Economic crisis a body blow
These conditions have been worsened many times by the current economic crisis and the problems have multiplied. First is the disruption in electricity supplies. As a result, tea factories are not working regularly and tea for western markets is not being produced. Countries like India and Nepal have stepped in to fill the demand. As the country’s export earnings plummet, the plantation workers will bear the brunt of the downturn. Second, shops and restaurants in Colombo have shut down due to the economic crisis, crippling the informal economy which had absorbed many of the people from the hill country.

Many have had to shut down small businesses but cannot return to the devastated plantation sector either. The lack of fuel has further hobbled job prospects, even for the self-employed. Auto drivers are unable to repay the loans because of the fuel scarcity. Domestic violence against women is increasing.

Children in the hill country face uncertainty because fuel shortage and uncertain public transport has meant that teachers are unable to reach schools in the remote areas. So the number of children going to schools has also reduced. In such a situation, many children have joined the labour force as their parents are unable to make ends meet given the rising prices. With schools closed, parents are taking the children along to work. This is going to create a problem of dropouts with children abandoning studies.

In this scenario what is going to be the future of the hill country people? Already malnutrition was seen; now many more are being pushed to the brink. Pressure on the micro-finance sector has shot up and lenders are chasing people to repay loans. Many suicides have been reported as a result.

Aid distribution scam
Amid the terrible scarcity, food aid sent from Tamil Nadu for the Tamil people has not reached the intended beneficiaries. Aid was given to one particular party for distribution. However, this reporter was told by the people that relief material was not distributed properly and only a few things were given. I urge the Tamil people of India that either the state government or the Indian government should keep track to ensure proper relief distribution. If you don’t do that then the help that you are giving is like throwing salt into the ocean.

Children in the hill country face uncertainty because fuel shortage and uncertain public transport has meant that teachers are unable to reach schools in the remote areas

So how are the hill country Tamils going to face the situation? What kind of an alternative solution are the political parties proposing? What is the current government going to do for this Sri Lanka plantation people who are the backbone of the economy is a crucial question.

I should stress something else as well. During the 40-year war and in the last war most of the lives lost were among the hill country people. These are the people who settled in the 70s and 80s in the Vanni area. Not just that, after the armed groups started they committed their children to these struggles. Even now if we go and talk to the people in Vanni we can know that many of them are hill country people.

That a well known Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam women’s wing leader Tamilini was a hill country woman cannot be forgotten. Not just that, even in the recent uprising against the government policies, the contribution of the hill country people was immense. So the contribution of the hill country people to the economy and now in the political changes that are happening in Sri Lanka is immeasurable.

There is a crying need for the poverty stricken, malnourished hill country people of Sri Lanka, bereft of proper education, business opportunities, and civil rights to break the bonds of modern-day slavery. Particularly a society which is at the root of Sri Lanka’s economy must be able to live with dignity and equal rights and the political parties and the politicians representing them must ensure that action is taken for that. Only then will the pain of the Sri Lanka plantation hill country people be relieved.

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