BY Mirudhula Thambiah
Popular civic rights activist in the plantations, Odaiyan Arumugam said the new government that comes into power should mainly ensure that plantation Tamils are not just people living in the country but identified as citizens of Sri Lanka of Indian origins.
“If we brand them as plantation Tamils, they will be identified as inferior or only confined to plantation. Giving them equal status with other communities could be a positive step as they have so many years of political development,” he said.
Excerpts of an interview:
?. What are your suggestions to ensure the identity of plantation Tamils when the new government is formed?
A: Why should we call them plantation Tamils? There are other communities in Sri Lanka. They also should be given such an identity. They should be identified as Sri Lankan citizens of Indian origin and they should be given equal status with all other communities. Thus make them citizens of Sri Lanka. These people should be future citizens of Sri Lanka not plantation sector Tamils.
If we brand them as plantation Tamils, they will be identified as inferior or only confined to plantation. Bringing them equal to all other communities could be positive discrimination as they are behind so many years of political development. Their political thinking is now changing, they must be on their own and also economically, they must be free on their own, like other communities not depending on the plantation sector. The social life of these people should be other citizens of this country. Social, health, education, transport and housing services are bonded issues.
The housing given to these people should be separate like other citizens of this country, thus taking their own decision on their own social life. Currently they are just bonded to separate companies. These matters should be addressed to the entire plantation sector community from Kurunegala to every other plantation areas. People in the estates are isolated. They should be identified and brought to the national strength. The former government has already begun to implement the 10-year plan that is a process of development. Accordingly their social identity, leadership and personality also should be developed.
?. What are your suggestions to prepare a new Constitution to ensure the identity of plantation Tamils?
A: Human rights of this community should be considered and equal status to all communities is necessary. They must have their rights in all issues in the sector. People in the plantation sector should be given opportunities to raise their voice against violence. These people are dependants; they are less educated and are prone to early school drop-outs. The women come to the urban sector as housemaids. After retirement they have no social security. This should be considered when drafting a new Constitution. The plantation boys and girls come to the city for employment, so there should be proper standards for them.
Plantation sector youth come to Colombo and work as shop assistants, housemaids, porters and building workers. Therefore, there is no social security for them.
Although Sri Lanka follows international labour standards and occupational safety procedures, those aren’t properly implemented for safety of the plantation youth. The safety measures should be properly implemented. In addition to professional safety, plantation children should be given opportunities for education.
There should be a suitable system to educate parents, teachers, leaders and stakeholders. In addition, they should be given career guidance and employment opportunities. Industrial safety measures should also be made available to workers. If such issues are addressed properly in the new Constitution, people in the plantation sector will benefit immensely.
?. What mechanism should be adopted to make lands,houses, health facilities and employment opportunities available to the plantation sector?
A: The non-availability of suitable houses has given plantation Tamils a sense of inferiority. Their social life should be independent. Every person should be given lands and the houses should be built free. They should not be dependent on others.
A land should be made available to them to put up an individual housing units. It should be organized as a village based social system. This will help the plantation sector people to be on their own.
Most plantation children still do not have proper schools. Due to lack of guidance, there are many school dropouts. Today plantation children prefer to study in the Tamil medium. However, there is a severe shortage of teachers for the science and mathematics streams. This has created a situation in which plantation students are unable to compete with other students of popular schools. Education has become an expensive exercise today. As a result, plantation youth who complete their education have to accept jobs which are not very popular. Even life skills and leadership training are not given to them.
Apart from the school curriculum, plantation youth should be provided with technical education and career guidance. When such a programme is launched, you will see an educated and enlightened plantation community ready to serve the country.
In order to make higher education accessible to the plantation sector, universities should be established in those areas. When people are educated, they will be in a better position to develop their community. What is more, the Z – score system has barred plantation sector students from entering universities making their future bleak.
An estate medical service has been in existence since the British period. However, medical facilities are not available in some estates such as Namunukula and Butawatte. Therefore, there is an urgent need to put up government hospitals in the plantation areas.
It is the responsibility of the government to address health issues, but today plantation companies have been entrusted with it. As plantation people are citizens of the country, the government should not neglect them.
The new government should nationalize the health sector in the plantations and more facilities should be provided. Along withsuch facilities, proper counselling should be provided for students, parents and disabled people.
?. Apart from such problems, what are the other issues in the plantation sector?
A: Mostly after GCE O/L examination, many girls work as housemaids. Most of them are subject to domestic violence and sexual abuse. The new government should save them from such anti-social activities. There should be more social awareness about such problems in society.
Although certain opportunities are available to the educated youth in the plantation sector, many young men and women work as shopkeepers and housemaids. Some of them have even passed the GCE (Advanced Level)examination. However, they are exploited at the workplaces. Some of them work more than eight hours a day. Unfortunately, some of the plantation sector people think that they should do such menial jobs. They are voiceless people. Employers also exploit them as they are very innocent and controllable. Most of their employers do not respect labour laws. As a result, the employees have no job security. What is worse is that some of them have been exploited by the plantation community itself.
There is a modern trend in the plantation sector. If an educated youth marries a female in the plantation sector, they move out due to inferiority complex. Such a mentality should be changed and the educated people should learn to serve their own community.
While other communities are developing fast, the plantation community is lagging behind. It is up to the new government to take necessary steps to develop the plantation community according to a plan.
?. How should the government preserve the plantation economy and the rights of the workers?
A: The estate sector is the second major income earner. The government nationalized the estates in 1972. It affected all the plantation workers. The new government should take the initiative to modernize the estate sector. Those who work in the plantation sector should have a sense of pride. Their legitimate rights should be protected. Job security must be ensured. The factories should be modernized in order to attract workers. If these suggestions are implemented properly, the plantation industry will flourish. In addition, plantation workers should be given their trade union rights.
?. How do you suggest to protect the rights of plantation women?
A: Plantation women should be socially educated. They must develop their own nationality. They must have a sense of pride and respect for their community. The women should think that they are not just workers but an important segment of the workforce engaged in the development efforts of the country.
Women face many problems while serving in tea estates. They become victims of snake bites and other hazards. Also they are subject to sexual abuse by supervisors and others. We need to have educated women in the plantations so that they will protect their rights.
?. What kind of a political leadership and power sharing mechanism should be adopted in the plantations?
A: There should be leadership among the youth; traditional leaders should allow young educated people to emerge. Opportunities must be given to the youth to enter politics through trade unions.
With educated leaders, plantation sector stands to benefit in the long run. They will be able to negotiate with the management and the government to win their demands. Such a course of action will help them to establish themselves as an important community in the island nation.