With May Day rallies and the usual demands for workers’ rights, my mind went back to the early 1960’s when I was in the J Branch of the Central Bank’s Exchange Control department. The Exchange Control department was then housed in an old British Army barrack at Echelon Square on the site where the Hilton Hotel presently stands.
J branch handled the applications for transfer of assets of Indian nationals who were to be repatriated to India when their visas expired. These workers were the descendants of indented Indian labour who in the late 19th century trudged on foot from South India amidst immense hardship to the tea estates in the central highlands of Sri Lanka. They lived in very poor conditions in estate line rooms. (Things may have changed for the better since then. The Plantation workers’ troubles began when the Controller of Immigration and Emigration (C.I.E.) informed them that their visa would not be extended and that they would have to leave the island before a certain date. They then had the problem of transferring their assets since they had to start a new life in India. Their assets consisted of their savings of a few thousand rupees and some household articles of which a sewing machine and a petromax lamp were their prized possessions. They would then apply to the J branch at Exchange control to transfer their assets. In some instances the processing of their applications could not be completed before the expiry date of their visa and the poor plantation worker and his family ended up in the Slave Island Detention Camp while their applications were pending. If they were summoned to Exchange Control at this time they were brought in under police guard.
The main arbiter of how much of their assets they could take with them was the Assistant Controller of Exchange of the J Branch (AC/J).Their applications were treated with suspicion bordering on near aggression. It was unfortunate that at that time plantation workers of Indian origin lived under the stigma of being illicit immigrants (kallathoni) and of helping to transfer other people’s money to India. Eventually the “rule” adopted was to allow one tenth of their income to be repatriated as savings. TThe most pathetic and humiliating treatment meted out to them was seen when they applied to take their sewing machine and petromax lamp back to India. In most cases the plantation workers were summoned to the J Branch to provide evidence of ownership of the sewing machine. The poor plantation worker lwould appear before the AC/J with the old receipt as proof of purchase many years earlier. He was accused of attempting to take some other person’s sewing machine to India! Many were treated badly in this way.