This House is not a Home the struggle for Addresses and land in the plantation sector

The workers of Sri Lanka’s tea estates have faced a myriad of challenges for as long as the industry has existed. A century and a half since the first plantations were introduced, these challenges still persist, along with several others that have arisen over time.

Conditions in the estate sector continue almost unchanged, despite post-war development drives coupled with promises from government to uplift their standards of living and work. Exemplifying the administrative neglect of these communities is the fact that many plantation sector workers have never had a permanent contact address to their name.

The Centre for Policy Alternatives, along with several local partner organisations, has worked on projects aimed at bringing dignity to this marginalised community through obtaining addresses for each home.

Estates do not fall under the purview of the local government, according to the Pradeshiya Sabha Act. Therefore, they are not bound to provide roads, road names or addresses for the areas that fall inside each estate’s boundaries. In order for this to be done, a request must be made by the estate management to the relevant authorities. Senior Researcher Lionel Guruge, who spearheaded CPA’s Vilaasam initiative that gave addresses to 3000 families in the Badulla and Maskeliya regions, says this is the first roadblock to the process.

It took some convincing to get the estate management on board for their first address project. This first step made it clear that addresses were an important addition to the lives of workers. After this, they were approached from several other estates to carry out the same work in their areas.

The issue of the addresses inevitably brings up the issue of housing in the estate sector as well. ‘Lines’ on estates mean several people were grouped together, determining community and identity, which has its own set of problems. Rajamayagam Salobaraj, a community activist in Badulla's Spring Valley region, states that the housing today exists because of misunderstandings and inefficiencies that have persisted since the time of the first British planters.

‘When they first came from India, everyone was kept together in a single camp at Talaimannar. This gave the authorities the notion that all new workers could get along in close proximity to one another, with no issues. The line system that was supposed to be transient housing for them remains to this day.’

Without an address, the only way an individual can identify themselves to receive postage is by indicating the estate itself. Post goes to the management, and distribution thereafter is unspecific, meaning that if there are multiple people with the same name, no effort is made to ascertain which one of them the letter is for.

Line rooms in the plantation sector are numbered at random and letters are often delivered to other people with the same name. Whether a person receives a letter depends on the integrity of the kangani (an official who organizes distribution of these) the goodwill of one’s neighbours, and sometimes, sheer chance. Jeewaratnam Sureshkumar, Field Coordinator at CPA's Outreach Team, states that this lack of an address undermines the democracy and equality that all citizens of Sri Lanka should be entitled to.

Kamala’s* entire lifetime of EPF savings was in a cheque, which – thanks to this system – went to another woman of the same name, in the same estate, because her mail had never been delivered to her.

Kumar* never received the letter that told him that he had been selected for university admission. After studying very hard, amidst the great odds facing students who come from estates, life-changing opportunities like this can be lost when something as seemingly simple as a house address is missing.

The Mocha Estate in Maskeliya is one estate where CPA has carried out the address project. The responses of citizens indicates how important it is to them.

Photos from the Vilaasam project completed in March 2016, showing the unveiling of road names and placing of individual numbers on line houses of the Mocha Estate.
‘The lines on the estate are now like our own little village – names, signboards, numbers on doors.’
‘Earlier, we used to be shy to send wedding invitations to anyone because we would have to just place the address as ‘Mocha Estate’. It’s a big deal for us now to be able to put our house, street and division name on anything we send out.’
‘It’s as simple as being able to check in on Facebook with a location more personal to us than just that of the whole estate. Now we can say ‘Adam’s Peak Division, Mocha Estate’ instead of just saying ‘Mocha Estate’.’

The process of working with local government and provincial authorities to obtain addresses for line homes is a long and laborious one. When there is approval from the necessary authorities, the roads are gazetted and road signs as well as numbers for houses are placed within the estate. Ramanayagam Raguraj of the Uva Shakthi Foundation – one of the community groups most actively working for plantation communities – states that there aren’t parties that actively impede their address projects.

‘The biggest challenge is that it takes a long time, and local authorities cooperate with us. However, we have heard opposition from the Bodu Bala Sena (BBS), saying that with these new road names – Dharmapuram, Mayurapuram, Shanthipuram - we are trying to turn the hill country into a ‘Little Jaffna’. They even lodged a case against us in Badulla.’

Obtaining addresses is the first step in a long journey for the estate communities, as several community organisations are working now to obtain land rights for the workers. Several plans have been made by the State, yet none have made land ownership a reality for this community.

In the year 1994, an initiative to provide each family living in a line house with 7 perches of land was begun. They were required to pay back a loan of Rs. 30,000 after 15 years and would then receive their deeds. While some workers dedicated their lives and meagre income to this payment, at the end of the 15 years the deeds they were promised never materialised.

The government made promises to ensure land ownership to the estate sector in President Sirisena’s 100-Day Plan and Prime Minister Wickremesinghe’s Economic Policy Statement. Local organisations say that they never saw this being implemented.

Mr. Ganeshalingam, who works on plantation sector rights through SIDPS in Maskeliya stated that there are several cases where land, given on a 99-year lease to the relevant estate, is sold for profit without the workers being given notice. They find themselves being forced out of their homes by those who buy the area, because the estate hasn’t accounted for the presence of the nearby line houses when making the sale.

Proof of residence on the estate land that was sold, without the residents' knowledge or consent, to a third party by the estate.

Construction was begun by the Yahapalanaya government on houses to replace line homes for workers across the hill country. Each house came with a small area of surrounding land, amounting in total to 7 perches per family.

The first issue that arose was that this allocation provided to be far too small for comfort, especially since generations of family members had all been living together in the line houses. In addition, construction abruptly stopped, with no indication of what future the housing project would have and if it would be of value to the estate workers.

The tea industry has been operating in Sri Lanka for 150 years and the Malaiyaha Tamil community has lived on the island for nearly 200 years. The issues they face in the hill country remain hidden, and marginalised in social, political and economic discussion, despite the development drive that occurred in the country post-war.

August 2017 marks 150 years of tea production in Sri Lanka. To mark this anniversary, there have been several celebratory activities and events planned throughout the year, including a Global Tea Party, International Tea Convention and a charity auction. While there has been much reported in the media around these events, there has been little mention of the tea plantation workers without whose contribution the industry would not exist. With this in mind, Groundviews, Maatram and Vikalpa - the Civic Media network of the Centre for Policy Alternatives - will be creating a series of features aimed at raising awareness around the hardships faced by workers and their families.

#Celebrate150Years #CeylonTea #GlobalTeaParty

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