The Forgotten Brew The struggle for rights and representation in Sri lanka's low-country estates

It is easy to forget that Deniyaya is located in the Matara district. Many people travel here in order to trek through the Sinharaja rainforest. Few people stop to notice the sprawling tea estates they pass en route, apart from the local community.

Throughout the hill country, especially in areas such as Nuwara Eliya or Hatton, estates border each other and most of the community is Tamil-speaking. While the characteristics of life in up-country estates are vastly different to that of the nearby towns, there still exists a sense of belonging to a larger community, owed in part to being able to converse with those who speak the same language.

In the South, the estates in the Galle and Matara district are sandwiched between settlements where the majority of residents are Sinhala speaking. The majority-minority dynamics at play in these two places affect the relationship that the Malaiyaha Tamils have with their surroundings.

“During the war, the fear was at a high. Though the people working on the estates were Hindus and Catholics, they would place Buddha statues in front of their homes to safeguard themselves" a representative from the Community Development Service for Plantations (CODESEP), a Catholic community based organization said.

This led to a slow, silent erasure of Tamil identity and culture for many of the estate workers. Many of the workers stopped wearing jewellery and the pottu which might otherwise identify them as Tamil. Many of them also took to speaking Sinhalese, mainly due to necessity.

Field workers say that this state of affairs persist today, and that fear still dictates the way estate workers in the South live their lives. They are the descendants of the South Indian workers who came to work in the island’s first estates, but their names and adopted lifestyles sometimes tell a different story. They bestow on their children names such as Kanishka and Kasun, that are difficult for them to pronounce, and enrol them in the Sinhala schools. The children learn how to speak the language while also learning about Buddhism, and are therefore as well versed in its doctrine as they are in that of their own Hindu religion.

Language continues to be a barrier to support services in the low country estates. In many cases, the grama niladhari is Sinhala-speaking. This has led to problems when registering births, for instance - officers have been known to write down the sex of a newborn as the baby's name as they are not able to differentiate the words.

This leads to further problems if the children work on the estate and try to claim ETF or EPF funds. They then have to go through the laborious process of changing their names in order to receive their dues; and are often preyed upon by unscrupulous middlemen who take advantage by levying substantial agent fees. While the state provides a wealth of resources - in terms of workshops and personnel - to midwives and state hospitals, it is all too often provided in Sinhalese that is loaded with technical jargon that the estate workers often can’t understand.

Due to a lack of Tamil medium schools, many of the estate worker's children are placed in the Sinhala medium, where they struggle to perform academically in a relatively unfamiliar language. In this area, even the Sinhala medium schools often have a lack of good teachers - and there are no guidance counsellors. Nor is there support to encourage children who show promise in sports.

Up until 2011, there were also few schools which offered higher education - O Level students would have to travel to Kahawatte, Rakwana, Hatton or Ratnapura - forcing many of them leave home and board near those areas. Despite the many obstacles, many do persevere and go on to higher studies - CODESEP says they know of six students who are attending university, while others are attending teacher training programmes.

However, as in the upcountry areas, there are many school dropouts. CODESEP recently discovered an estate where twenty-four students were not attending school, simply because the nearest school was too far away. They intervened by organising a bus - partly funded by the estate worker's parents.

“Sometimes, the teachers themselves will tell children they are on leave the next day, and tell them not to come to class. When they stay home for a few days, many of them don’t come back,” a representative from CODESEP said.

Sister Genova, who works with the Women and Children's Bureau in Deniyaya, says she has seen children as young as twelve years old going to the estates to pluck tea. This is partly due to the immense pressure many of the families have to make ends meet, she says. “Some of the estate community don’t have anything to eat, if they don’t work. They receive between Rs. 500 and Rs. 700 a day – and often don’t have any left over to save,” she explained. “The women work hard to educate their children and financially support their families. However, the community also battles with vices, such as drugs and alcoholism especially among the men" Sister Genova says.

Estate communities across the island seem to believe that Colombo is a corrupting influence on the local youth. “They come back with smartphones and dyed hair, and think that is what life is about,” Sister Genova says. Yet, many young people continue to make the trip in the hopes of making a living. Those who decide not to leave the area often switch to smallholder estates, since the hours are more flexible and the renumeration better – as much as Rs. 200 more than the usual minimum wage of Rs. 820, according to CODESEP fieldworkers.

“As the aspirations of the workers increase, you have to keep pace with what they want,” says Dr Rohan Fernando, Head of Plantations and Business Development of the Aitken Spence group, which has estates in this area.

However, Fernando says, these measures need to be balanced with business considerations – estate management needs to consider making profit. This is difficult with increasing costs of production, dropping yields and a continued outflow of workers. Fernando is confident this can be overcome by embracing the full potential of tea – including as a spice or ingredient for gourmet cooking.

Some estates are also experimenting with different models, such as what is known colloquially as the ‘bought leaf’ system. Here, the estate management parcels out sections of land per worker. The worker then has to maintain their plot, including plucking the tea, which the management buys from them at the prevailing price.

The issue that persists is that the land allotted is never enough for one family to live comfortably, as it is rather haphazardly portioned. In addition, this system requires intensive maintenance and upkeep of the tea bushes, which is a cost that families can't always recover with the income, despite it being slightly more profitable than the usual system.

Under the bought-leaf system, workers still don’t own the land; this lack of ownership usually means that they don't have the motivation to develop plot given to them.

'It's quite warm outside, but with the humidity and dampness there are leeches even on the sunny days. They've crept up my feet and you can see the bleeding where they latched on. They don't look very closely at our health and well-being in the estate, so I make sure to bring a bar of soap along with me to keep as many leeches away as possible.'

'I've got three kids and with the new bought-leaf system, it's difficult for us to afford to send them all to school. We wish we can give them everything but we are not able to save much once our costs for the house, groceries and supplies, are covered.'

'My son works in Colombo, in construction for new buildings. I want my other children also to work as far from the estate as possible, there's no future for them if they continue to work plucking tea.'

This area in Deniyaya was badly affected in the floods of 2016 and 2017, with vehicle access along the main roads often obstructed by landslides. The staff at CODESEP say that most of the aid that the area received was from independent volunteers, with little support from the State. The estate housing has since been marked as within a landslip zone, but the residents have not been offered any alternate housing to which they can evacuate.

As the low country estates are spread out from each other, the estate community here does not have political representation as the up-country estates do, and little trade union support. "The upcountry estates have MPs and trade unions working for their interests. Here, many of the area MPs don't even know about the low country estates, unless they travel here," CODESEP explained. Most of Deniyaya's representatives are Sinhala-speaking. These MPs are often not motivated to work for the estate workers interests, in the absence of sustained lobbying from trade unions.

In the absence of this support, the low country estate community often has to manage with even less by way of facilities than their upcountry counterparts. Community-based organisations like CODESEP hope to change this, but it’s an uphill battle involving negotiations with both the State and the estate management of private companies. Until this changes, people will continue to associate places like Deniyaya with proximity to verdant forest, traveling here unaware of the struggles of the estate community close by.

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