The landslide that buried an entire village on Meeriyabedda Estate in Haldamulla, a tea plantation in Sri Lanka’s central hills is a tragic reminder of a marginalized ethnic minority and the failure of the democratic political system to address their needs. The plantation Tamil people have been discriminated against from the time of Independence from British colonial rule when they were denied their citizenship and continue to suffer from that legacy. The wealth they have produced has gone into the coffers of state and plantation companies, but inputs to upgrade the quality of housing for the plantation workers who toil under extreme weather condition has been minimal and often not meeting minimum requirements to enable them to lead dignified lives.
Even today the plantation Tamil community continue to be denied land ownership on the plantations where they have lived for generations and live in ramshackle “line houses” constructed during the colonial period. The media has reported that the affected community had been informed of the danger of earth slips and the need to relocate but they had nowhere else to go. There was negligence in the failure of state authorities to relocate the people to safer locations. The responsibility lies also with the trade unions which are meant to look after the well being of the plantation workers and who are part of the government. The government is improving buildings and infrastructure in the urban areas spending considerable amounts of money. As the plantation workers are the poorest segment of our society the government needs to take the responsibility to find alternative land and houses for them.
The National Peace Council is encouraged by the multi-pronged and national response to the catastrophe faced by the affected people, of whom an estimated 300 were initially believed to have been buried alive and as many as 80 children orphaned, although the government now claims the figures are significantly less. The security forces were quick the dig the area looking for survivors and for bodies, President Mahinda Rajapaksa paid a personal visit and humanitarian supplies have been sent by a number of private companies and organizations in addition to the government. Humanitarian agencies who have deployed staff on the ground also report that there is a substantial influx of relief items to the two safety centres (dry rations, cooked meals, drinking water, clothes, utensils, personal items etc). The All Ceylon Hindu Congress has offered to admit these children to Hindu College, Ratmalana on full scholarship which could be considered for those orphans who have no families to support them.
We note, however, that the government has decided to take steps to ensure that the orphans will be looked after by the state. While we commend the government’s willingness to take responsibility for the orphans, we believe that the better environment for them would be with their families or extended families rather than in state-run orphanages. We recommend that the orphans be placed with their relatives whose parental function is strengthened by state support both financial and adequate housing, and by monitoring. This will ensure that separation of families and the need for institutional care is minimized in accordance with international standards as advocated by the Tokyo-Seoul Declaration to Establish UN World Orphans Day of October 31, 2014. We also recommend that this tragic moment be utilized to address the deeper problems of the plantation Tamil community, especially their inability to own land and thereby improve their conditions of living.