The Road to School access to education in the Plantation sector

By Raisa Wickrematunge

For children living in Spring Valley estate, close to Badulla, the day begins at 5:30 am, when they begin to get ready for the bus to school. The bus leaves at 6:20 am and travels for 3 kilometres. From there, it’s another 2 kilometre walk to the Spring Valley Tamil Maha Vidyalaya. The Vice Principal says a few of the children walk the entire way – a journey of around one and a half hours.

This is still better than the plight of schoolchildren attending Old Peacock Tamil Vidyalayam, Gampola, according to its principal, S Rajaram. Some schoolchildren here have to travel as far as 12 kilometres. The farthest estates, perched high up in the hills, are inaccessible by vehicle as the roads are so bad. Due to this, many of the children have to walk a large part of the journey. There are buses along the route, but children have to get up very early to make one bus, or risk being late for school. Many of them choose to walk home to save money – some of them walk between four or five kilometres a day.

S Rita*, an estate worker from Maskeliya says her children have to travel 6 kilometres for school – and that includes children in Grade 1, aged 6 or 7. Often, children have to take a three-wheeler to get to school, which can cost as much as Rs. 1,000 a month, she says. Rita’s eldest daughter is studying for her Advanced Level examinations in Norwood School. She has to travel around 3 kilometres by bus, and this too costs money.

“Often, I only have about Rs. 4,000 or Rs. 5,000 remaining from my salary at the end of the month. I have to make do with this to somehow pay off school expenses. Meanwhile, everyone talks about free education, but you still have to make donations, to get your child into school."

Rita and her fellow workers think this is a necessary sacrifice. “We are working because we want better for our children. We don’t want them to work the way that we do,” they said. A 2015 survey conducted by the Centre for Policy Alternatives found that 66% of the Malaiyaha Tamils wanted education prioritised in the budget, showing shifting priorities as they wanted their children to leave this sector.

While parents working on the estate put together what money they can at great cost to themselves, that is often not enough to secure their children’s futures. The school Rita’s daughter attends for instance, has a shortage of science teachers.

Teaching students the metric system - Maymallay Vidyalaya, Badulla

At MayMallay School, off Badulla, Vice Principal Thiruchelvam says three of his teachers have to come from Badulla town, hiring three-wheelers every day to do so. As a result, the school sometimes has issues sourcing teachers for all their subjects. In Nuwara Eliya, a principal of a primary school who requested anonymity said that they were facing issues as three teachers were now eligible to be transferred to another location. If this happens, they will be short of an English teacher. “Children are afraid of subjects like Math and Science,” said S Rajaram, principal of Old Peacock Tamil Vidyalaya, Gampola. “We are facing a problem in terms of shortages of teachers in these subjects… many of the students choose to follow Arts subjects.”

The result is clearly seen in the pass rates tacked to the wall of Saraswathy Central College, Gampola – just 28% of its students passed Mathematics last year.

When Groundviews visited Sita Ramiah, a plucker who has worked for 21 years on an estate in Badulla, her son was hard at work, studying to re-sit his exams. “For schoolchildren, the CTB buses have a special rate. So it would cost between Rs. 20 and 25 for a ticket. However, we often have to give them a little extra money, in case the CTB bus doesn’t stop at the junction. The bus route was introduced recently, so now it’s easier for our kids.”

“Some families don’t have any extra money on hand. So if the children need to go on a trip, for instance, they have to take loans.” Adding to the burden, whenever a child fell sick, Sita said it would almost certainly impact on pay, since estate worker’s wages were so closely tied to attendance (an extra Rs. 140 is given to those who pluck for 20 days of the month).

These pressures often prove insurmountable, leading to dropouts. A study conducted by CEPA in 2005 found that the years that children were young and attending school were the most difficult for estate families, financially, adding that there was a particularly high drop out rate after Grade 10. A more recent study conducted by UNICEF in 2013 found that of the children not attending school, the highest number were from the estate sector. There was gender disparity, with girls less likely to be attending school than boys. A key reason for high dropout rates was the long distance that children had to travel to school, the report noted.

Thiruchelvam noted that at times even those who did make it to school had sporadic attendance as other, more urgent matters came up. “The estates have cooperative societies where you can get food for a discounted price. There is a specific day, around the last day of the month or the beginning of the next month, when they give out these goods. In that week, the children don’t come. They will go and queue at the society to get the discounts – their parents can’t do it as they will then receive less pay.”

There are other pressures that often keep children at home – the main one being mothers going overseas to find work, leaving the older children to look after their younger siblings. Alcoholism too is a major factor leading to dropouts. Then there are mothers who have no choice but to keep their children at home, as the system doesn't accommodate them.

S Pushparani's home

S Pushparani has a 15-year-old daughter who needs constant care - she cannot speak, or eat without assistance. Pushparani has taken her from the Gampola hospital to Colombo, without success. There being no school to accommodate children like her, Pushparani says she has no choice but to keep her at home. Yet she is forced to work when she can find someone to look after her child, in order to support the cost of her younger daughter's education. "We are in great difficulty. My husband works as a mechanic, but his salary is not enough to cover all our living expenses."

Most parents do ensure their youngest children go to school, as Kanageshwari Ramiah, a teacher at SIDPS pre-school on the Strathsey estate, off Badulla, said. However, the dropouts begin after the transition to government schools in the town, which are further away. “Many of them aspire to go to Colombo. They think if they can work in a shop, as a mason or even entering the garment industry, they can earn up to Rs. 1,500 a day, in comparison to the Rs. 730 they would receive on the estate.”

As a result, many of the children who fail their Ordinary Levels decide to enter the workforce right away, Ramiah said. Some of them find the transition to Colombo too difficult – Ramiah knows of two girls who joined a garment factory. The employers took the girls’ ID cards, and they had no food allowance and no house as they did on the estate, so the girls returned. Conversely, those with marketable skills often do well – leading more youth to aspire to travel into Colombo. Some of the school faculty dislikes this trend.

“They go to Colombo and change for the worse. We’d like to see the estate workers gain education and stay in the estate. Estate workers don’t have pride in their work the same way that, for instance, fishermen do. If that could be instilled, then the flow of people out of the estates could be stopped,” Principal Sivayoga of Saraswathy Central College said. "We thought once electricity came to the estates, there would be better results. Instead, children are distracted by TV and their smartphones." S Rajaram of Old Peacock Tamil Vidyalayam has a different theory. “The estate workers want good jobs, but don’t think about getting good results at examinations.” A 2015 article in The Island newspaper noted that the estate community has low educational attainment (referring to the highest level of education an individual has completed), making them less eligible for vocational training.

Photo courtesy Amalini de Sayrah

A 2012 study on Poverty incidence in the estate sector found that when road access, education, and access to a market remained constant, the chances of entering agricultural employment reduced. Interestingly, they also found that an increase in education led to a reduction in poverty, highlighting the vital importance of education and a proper road infrastructure in uplifting this community.

Yet, access to funds for development on estate settlements, including for roads can be an extraordinarily convoluted process. Just ask Executive Director of the Institute of Social Development, P Muthulingam. He was the first to notice that under Section 33 of the Pradeshiya Sabha Act, local government could not undertake any development activities using Pradeshiya Sabha funds, without the permission of estate management. He has been campaigning to reverse this since 1994. The law is currently being redrafted, but there are numerous problems even in the current iteration, which continues to require that a special resolution be passed in conjunction with estate management.

Engineer at the ADB-funded Integrated Road investment Programme (iRoad) under the Road Development Authority, E M A Gunathilake explained that most of the decisions to renovate roads were taken at the Provincial Council level. Project Director for iRoad, Central Province, A S A Azher said that numerous estate roads had been renovated under the project. These were identified in conjunction with the local community and politicians, he said. Around 900 million USD was spent by ADB and the State to construct about 3,000 kilometres of road overall. Yet, it’s clear much more needs to be done to improve infrastructure, particularly within the estates. Until this changes, children from estates will continue to face a long journey to school, and an uncertain future.

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