Plight of the estate workers and their delapidated line room houses
- While many interrelated factors are at play, poor education attainment in the Upcountry Tamil communities, societal indifference to education, and political neglect to upgrade education facilities is at the heart of a vicious cycle of poverty
The suspicious death of a domestic help at the residence of former Minister Rishad Bathiudeen has momentarily unmasked the ugly truth of an exploitative affair that many a Sri Lankan middle-class family takes for granted: having a maid, predominantly from upcountry Tamil origin.
16-year-old Ishalini Jude Kumar from Dayagama West Division 3 was admitted to the Colombo National Hospital on July 3, with severe burn injuries. She succumbed to injuries 12 days later and the post mortem found that the teenager had been subject to repeated sexual assault. Police investigations have led to a string of arrests including the wife and the father in law of the former minister and his brother, the latter charged with rape, after another woman who previously served at the house complained that she was subject to sexual abuse.
Bathiudeen’s political status – he has been on the ‘wrong side’ of the political divide recently – has made the case a magnet of public interest. Allegations of former Minister’s complicity – in his capacity as the head of the household-include human trafficking and child labour.
Tragic and callous, Ishalini’s fate is not a one-off story. Every year, many thousands of young women and men from Upcountry plantations come to work in Middle-class households in Colombo and suburbs. Most of them, in their teens or barely out of it, effectively sign up for a life of drudgery with no sign of upward mobility.
Bathiudeen, a legislator, might have blatantly violated the basic laws that were meant to safeguard the vulnerable communities. But his callousness is microscopic of a much-generalized indifference of the upper social echelons. The tragedy of Ishalini should serve as a catalyst to change this exploitative status quo that has trapped generations after generations of the Tamils of Indian origin community.
Upcountry Tamils have suffered from an intergenerational cycle of poverty. Their status as the indentured workers in Colonial tea plantations effectively rendered them to a life of servitude, with little prospect of life beyond the plantations. Soon after the independence, the government of D.S. Senanayake disenfranchised Estate Tamils under the Ceylon Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Indian-Pakistani Citizenship Act of 1949. After mass repatriation under Sirima –Shastri Pact, J.R. Jayawardene granted citizenship to Tamils of Indian Origin who stayed behind.
Backed by the newly enfranchised voters, the founder of the Ceylon Workers Congress, Savumiamoorthy Thondaman, emerged as the kingmaker of Sri Lankan politics. Though there had been considerable progress over time in the living standard of estate Tamil communities, they still languish a decade or two behind the rest of the country.
While many interrelated factors are at play, poor education attainment in the Upcountry Tamil communities, societal indifference to education, and political neglect to upgrade education facilities is at the heart of a vicious cycle of poverty.
For instance, according to 2009 data, almost half (46%) of 25-year-olds or above in estate the Tamil community have not schooled up to primary level (Grade 5) while another 32% have only completed primary level education (Sri Lanka Human Development Report 2012). That means three-quarters of the estate Tamil community have not studied beyond the primary level. The national average for those two categories is 18% (below primary) and 25% (primary).
Only three per cent of estate Tamil people have passed the GCE Ordinary Level and the GCE Advanced level examinations. The national averages are 16 and 14% respectively
Estate children are more likely not to attend primary school (4.4% vs. 1.6% of rural kids), according to another report by UNICEF. The estate dropout rate is higher than the national average. Ten per cent of estate children drop out before the junior secondary level; four times the average of rural children (2.8%).
Poverty drives away estate children from school. (For instance, 60% of children from families of the highest income quintile proceed to upper secondary education in Sri Lanka; this is twice the size of children from families of the lowest income quintile, according to a World Bank study in 2007).
However, the absence of education infrastructure in the plantation sector is also contributing to poor educational attainment. Most schools in the plantation sector are classified as Type 3 schools which have classes only upto the primary level. This is effectively leading to mass dropout.
The economic model of the plantation economy, which has not changed much since the turn of the last century is also a major handicap. Plantations that rely on cheap labour have little incentive to create real opportunities for upward mobility for their captive workforce.
Thus, the very structure of the plantation economy dissuades children from pursuing higher education. This pernicious impact can be seen in the low number of upper secondary education in the plantation: Only 54% of estate children were enrolled compared to 86 and 81% for urban and rural areas, respectively (Sri Lanka Human Development Report). And only 13% of Estate Tamil children proceed to the GCE Advanced level, which is way behind the national average of 39%.
Politics have not necessarily helped. Thondaman Senior built a dynastic political empire, a mixture of trade unionism and feudalism. Its mantle has now been transferred to his great-grandson, the twenty-something Jeevan. Such political institutions do not necessarily promote upward mobility of theirreceptive audience for self-serving calculations. None of the upcountry Political bigwigs has shown genuine interest to create opportunities for youngmen and women beyond the plantation sector.
Given the monopolistic hold of CWC and other groups in the upcountry Tamil electorate, the central government has little incentive to improve the lot in these communities. Successive measures have been piecemeal and half-hearted.
How to break the pernicious hold?
Poverty in Sri Lanka is concentrated in a few pockets. The plantation sector is the most pernicious of all. It should not have been this. Given the concentration in a limited geographic confine, it can be tackled much easier. Some forms of affirmative action such as a set quota for children from plantation communities to enter universities can address the disparity in higher education access.
One starting point for promoting alternative economic opportunities would be to encourage the apparel industry, which itself suffers from a labour shortage, to open up factories in these areas. A national programme to upgrade educational facilities in the plantation sector, and provide financial help for children to stay in schools would help reducing dropout rates. Vocational training opportunities would equip young men and women with employable skills and save them from the drudgery of menial work in rich households.
However, overall lower social and economic attainment could only be addressed from a concerted national programme, which tackles societal indifference to education, alcoholism, child labour and lack of productive economic opportunities beyond the plantation sector. This is not something that the government can outsource to the provincial political leadership of upcountry Tamil communities.
The tragic fate of Ishalini should be an eye-opener for the policy-makers to change the status quo of the plantation sector which breeds poverty and servitude.
The President can appoint a task force to make recommendations and follow up on them to break the hold of intergenerational poverty in the plantation sector and provide viable social and economic opportunities for a good number of young men and women from the often neglected community.
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