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PP Devaraj

With India emerging from economic backwardness and becoming an economic power house and a global economic player, it has acquired a new importance in Sri Lanka.

india Updated: Jan 06, 2006 14:04 IST

The People of Indian Origin (PIO) in Sri Lanka are mostly Tamils, and the majority of them work in the tea and rubber plantations of the island. Many of them are in trade and other businesses also.

Most of the workers were brought to the island by British planters more than 150 years ago.

Numbering over a million at the time of Sri Lanka's independence from Britain in 1948, the plantation workers and others of Indian origin, were the backbone of the island's economy.

Tea was the foremost foreign exchange earner for Sri Lanka till it was made to come a few notches down the ladder when the West Asian oil boom created unskilled jobs for Sri Lankans in the Middle East, and the export-oriented garment industry got a big fillip in the 1980s and 1900s.

Indian Origin Tamils and Muslims, along with Sri Lankan Muslims, were in the forefront of trade in Sri Lanka. And to this day, the biggest market in the capital city of Colombo, at Pettah, is a PIO enclave.

PIO traders are the single largest importers and exporters of perishable commodities in Sri Lanka.

But most of the PIOs are still wage labourers. They still constitute 90 per cent of the poorly paid labour force in the plantations. They are generally below the poverty line and educationally very backward too.

They are poorly represented in government institutions, though they have adequate political representation, in terms of membership in the elected bodies in areas where they are concentrated, like the Central Province.

Problem of statelessness

The problem of poverty and illiteracy among the PIO were compounded for decades by the problem of "statelessness". They were not citizens of any country! After Sri Lanka became independent in 1948, the government passed a law defining the new country's citizenship, which made most Indian settlers aliens.

And because in 1953, their country of origin, India, refused to take them back saying that they ought to be given Sri Lankan citizenship, they became "stateless".

But despite their statelessness, the Sri Lankan government allowed them to stay on and work, but without any right to vote. In a way, this was necessary as the economy was dependent on PIO estate labour.

In 1953, 1.17 million PIO were stateless. But over time, this number got reduced thanks to agreements between the Sri Lankan and Indian governments. In 1949 (under the new citizenship law) Sri Lanka took 132,240 and under the 1964 Sirima-Shastri agreement, it took 469,000.

India accepted 64,000 under the 1954 agreement and 337,066 under the 1964 agreement.

But repatriation to India was tardy. 84,141 with Indian passport holders were overstaying in the country and further 84,000 were awaiting the grant of Indian passports.

However, even those given or awaiting Indian passports were unwilling to leave Sri Lanka, mostly because they had nothing in India to go back to, having been in Sri Lanka for generations.

Eventually, the Sri Lankan government came under pressure from PIO leaders like Soumyamoorthy Thondaman of the Ceylon Workers Congress (CWC) to give citizenship to all the stateless.

The struggle took years to attain results, but today, there is no statelessness among the PIO in Sri Lanka.

They are now 5.6 per cent of Sri Lanka's population of 20 million, and are the fourth largest community. Since many of them had willingly or had been forced to register themselves as "Sri Lankan Tamils", there has been under-reporting in the census. The real percentage is 7 rather than 5.6.

First Published: Jan 05, 2006 19:27 IST