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A brief history of Plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka

Image of a line room by Kasun Pussawela.

Rajitha Perera.

At the initiative of the British colonial administration, Sri Lanka experimented with coffee as a plantation crop in the 1830s.[1]  In 1869, the coffee industry was still thriving in Ceylon, but shortly afterwards; coffee plantations were devastated by a fungal disease[2] .

People from ThirunelveliTiruchiMadurai and Tanjore were recruited to Sri Lanka in 1827 by Governor Sir Edward Barnes on the request of George Bird, a pioneering planter[3].

Tea plantations were introduced to Sri Lanka in 1867 by James Taylor, a British planter who arrived in 1852.  The plantations require labour throughout the year and it is likely that the Sinhalese villagers declined to work on the plantations.

When these migrant workers were brought to Mannar, the port at which they landed on their arrival by boat from South India, they were moved via Kurunegala to camps in the town of Matale. There they were quarantined for a period of a week or more, examined for infectious diseases such as small poxcholera or typhoid and vaccinated against those diseases before they were sent to Kandy, from where they were dispersed to locations where they would either work on estates already established by a previous gangs of workers or clear land to establish new ones. Many died during their first few months of employment.  T

hey were instrumental in the establishment of tearubbercoffee and coconut plantations. They formed the bulk of the labour force of the plantation sector. [4]

These workers (and their families) who were brought into the country by the British government, lived on the plantations, in isolation, from the rest of the people in the country.  They had basic living conditions: “a line room’; where they lived, cooked, slept and also gave birth; sanitary conditions were minimal and sometimes non-existent; the children, including infants were cared for in a ‘creche’ room by an elderly woman, so that the female workers could go to work.

Women workers did better than males in the delicate art of plucking the ideal leaves (two leaves and a bud) to make tea.  Education was minimal, only primary; because the thinking was probably that estate workers needed no education!  The health and medical services were different from that of the rest of the country.  While the rest of Sri Lanka made great strides in public health, the estates did not benefit from those advances. The estates had few qualified medical practitioners.  Most had Estate Medical Assistants, a category only found in estates.  They had inadequate qualified midwives, and some of them were ‘unqualified’.  Not surprisingly, the infant and child and maternal mortality rates were higher than the rest of the country.[5]

In the early years after independence, when some of the people of Indian origin gained entry to parliament, D.S.Senanayake, the first prime minister, swiftly introduced legislation to disenfranchise many persons of Indian ancestry.  To further disenfranchise these people Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the first woman Prime Minister in the world, made a pact with India for the repatriation of 600,000 persons of Indian origin to India!  This is the manner in which the governments treated the people who worked on the plantations.  It is as if they did not matter, as persons.

“In summary, the social and political position of Estate Tamils, which is a consequence of their original migration to the island, leaves them with limited power and few options for themselves and their children.  The poor social and health conditions which they experience reflect this reality”.[6]

This is the manner in which people who were poor and desperate were brought into a foreign land and made indentured labour (An indentured servant or indentured labourer is an employee (indenture) within a system of unfree labour who is bound by a signed or forced contract (indenture) to work without pay for the owner of the indenture for a period of time).

They were forced to live in very poor conditions and then excluded from the polity of the country.  These are the very same people, who laboured and brought in the gold for the country.

In the 1970s the plantations owned by the private sector were nationalized and managed by the Sri Lanka State Plantations Corporation (SLSPC) and the Janatha Estates Development Board (JEDB).  This meant also that social services, housing, education, health and child care services in the plantations received attention and attempts were made to bring them up to the level of the rest of the country.  Foreign aid loans as well as grants from the Swiss government (for education), Dutch and Norwegians (for health, child care and housing and sanitation) enabled changes to be made for the caring and social development of these plantations workers and their families.  Since the SLSPC and JEDB were state-owned, the social development interventions were uniform across the sector and did not depend on individual profitability of the estate or the tea and plantation industry.

As a result of placing the plantations within the SLSPC and JEDB, and consequent social development interventions, “There has been a rapid improvement in health indicators in plantations in recent years”.[7]

The Plea for an apology

The people of Indian origin, brought to Sri Lanka as indentured labour in the 1820s, who laboured and created the gold, for first the British and then for the Sri Lankan governments, have been historically treated as second- class citizens, if as citizens at all.  600,000 were compulsorily sent back to India, without any reference to their wish.   Some attempts were made from 1970s to about 2000 to improve their living conditions and their development as people and as humans.

Now they continue to work under private management.  They are organized in trade unions which argue their cause and obtain good and liveable wages.  Their social situations have improved and younger generations who have obtained an education and wish no longer to work as labourers in plantations, like their parents.

It is time for the Sri Lankan governments, and managers who work in the industry and who obtain their livelihood from them, to apologize to these people for the way they have been treated and seek pardon.  In every meaning of the words, they are equal citizens and persons to every other person in Sri Lanka, or anywhere else.  The manner they have been treated by the British governments and their representatives from the 1820s to 1948, for around 120 years; and by Sri Lankan governments thence forth, for the last 70 years calls for deep regret and the need for an unqualified apology.

First published on 5th of May 2020


[1] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Coffee_production_in_Sri_Lanka

[2] Op cit.

[3] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indian_Tamils_of_Sri_Lanka

[4] Op.cit.

[5] R.S.Perera (1987) Infant Mortality on Sri Lankan Plantations

[6] Laing and Perera (1986) Health on Sri Lankan Plantations, p. 319, in Health Policy and Planning – a Journal on Health in Development (December 1986), Oxford University Press and London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine

[7] Wikepedia – “Indentured”.


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