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Wooing the rich, shooing the poor

The Indian origin Tamils of Sri Lanka is a community of poor who needs help from India, writes PK Balachandran.

india Updated: Jan 09, 2006 13:43 IST
PK Balachandran
PK Balachandran

"Rising India" with its new-found passion for the dollar, is assiduously cultivating the rich, successful and famous overseas Indians, mainly resident in the prosperous West.

They are being sought out, honoured and feted in extravagant jamborees. Celebration of a Pravasi Bharatiya Divas has no objective other than attracting overseas investment.

This is by no means unjustified, given the needs of a growing India. China had done the same thing vis-à-vis the Overseas Chinese community and gained enormously.

But what is regrettable, in the Indian context, is that a country which extols Mahatma Gandhi as the Father of the Nation, is turning a blind eye to the existence of millions of overseas Indians who are poor and looking to India for help.

It is worth remembering at this juncture that while being an expatriate lawyer in South Africa, Gandhi had deliberately shifted his focus from serving the small community of rich Indian businessmen to fighting for the rights of the poor Indian coolies who were in a majority there.

And Gandhi had a lot to do with the shaping of government of India's Overseas Indians policy before independence.

Today, New Delhi's Overseas Indians policy has turned full-circle and has everything for the rich Indian and little or nothing for the poor.

The bulk of the people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka, Malaysia, South Africa, Fiji, Mauritius and the West Indies are poor.

Conditions of Indian Origin Tamils in Sri Lanka

The 1.5 million-strong Indian Origin Tamils (IOT) of Sri Lanka, are a good example of a community of poor overseas Indians who need help from India.

According to PP Devaraj, President of the Sri Lanka chapter of the Global Organisation of People of Indian Origin (GOPIO), 88.13 per cent of the IOT live in the plantation areas of Sri Lanka, and 80% of them are below the (upper) poverty line.

At least 56 per cent of the plantation or estate workers get less than Sri Lankan Rupees (SLRs) 1,500 per month (INR 750 or $15 per month).

The average monthly income of the plantation worker is 50 per cent of the income of the general rural worker and 25 per cent of the income of the urban worker.

According to a 2005 publication of the Colombo-based Foundation for Co-existence (FOC) and the Foundation for Community Transformation (FCT), an IOT worker in the plantations gets less than SLRs 60 a day (payment in the other areas in Sri Lanka ranges from SLRs 200 to SLRs 500).

In the estates, payment is also related to fulfilling a minimum quota of picking 15 kgs a day. Late comers are not allowed to work.

According to 1996-97 data, the overall literacy rate in the plantation sector is 76.9 per cent. This is very good by Indian standards, but not so by Sri Lankan standards where the overall literacy rate is 94.5 per cent.

And 23.9 per cent of the estate sector people have had no schooling at all, while in the rest of the rural sector, only 7.9 per cent have not had any schooling.

Only 1.2 per cent of the boys and girls in the plantation sector go up to the school final exam (called GCE-Advanced level), while in the rest of the rural sector, 18.3 per cent do.

The 800 odd plantation schools are grossly understaffed, with a shortage of 3040 teachers.

There should be 1200 persons in the Principals' Grade in these schools, but there are only 524.

In the Sri Lanka Education Administrative Service (SLEAS), there are only two Class I officers from the IOT community. Their numbers in the Class II and Class III categories are 8 and 15 respectively.

Although the IOT are 7 per cent of Sri Lanka's population of 20 million, very few enter the universities. The IOT have accounted for less than 1% of the intake since 1950.

Lack of education severely affects employability. Take for instance the situation in Nuwara Eliya district, a typical tea plantation area in Central Sri Lanka.

Here, the IOT are 51.3 per cent of the population, but in the district office of the Ministry of Health, 496 of the 532 staff are Sinhalas and only 28 are Tamils.

In the matter of health and nutrition, the gap between the requirement and the existing condition is wide. Only 53.7 per cent of the estate population has access to medical facilities and only 11.7 per cent to hospitals.

This is reflected in the state of health of the estate population. Taking the year 1995, for which comparative figures are available, infant mortality was 28.5 per 1000 live births in the estate sector and 12.5 in the island as a whole.

In 2000, 30.9 per cent of the estate children were stunted, while in the rest of the rural sector the figure was 12.8 per cent.

The estate workers live in unhygienic conditions. 28 per cent of the households have no toilet. A typical "line house" is a 10 ft by 12 ft ill-ventilated malodorous cell with an open drain running along the door.

A dozen or so men, women and children may be cooped up in such a house.

Drunkenness and wife beating are common among the estate Tamils. In 90 per cent of the cases, the women hand over their wages to the men, 60 per cent of whom are heavy drinkers. According to Devaraj, there are estates, which supply liquor on credit with the idea of enslaving the workers' families.

The conditions of life in the plantations have to be seen in contrast to the importance of the estate sector in the economy of Sri Lanka.

The estate sector accounts for about 20 per cent of Sri Lanka's foreign exchange earnings and 4 per cent of the GDP. About 20 per cent of the country's labour force is in the plantations.

India's hands off policy

So long as Sri Lanka and India were part of the British Empire, the government of India took some interest in the IOT, in their wages and working conditions.

But come independence in 1947 (in the case of India), and 1948 (in the case of Sri Lanka), the view changed. India looked on indifferently as Sri Lanka refused citizenship to the million odd persons of Indian origin, mostly IOT.

In 1953, following India's refusal to take them, they became "stateless".

The problem of statelessness was partially solved with New Delhi and Colombo signing pacts, which stipulated the numbers that each country would take.

People were earmarked for either for India or Sri Lanka without taking their consent. "We were treated like a commodity in the market than as human beings," observed the most important IOT leader, the Late Soumyamurthi Thondaman of the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC).

The grant of citizenship by Sri Lanka was dependent on repatriation by India.

But since India was dragging its feet on granting citizenship and repatriation, and many IOT did not want to be repatriated, the grant of Sri Lankan citizenship was also delayed.

IOT distance themselves from India

However, in the late 1970s and in the 1980s, S Thondaman lessened the dependence on India and looked more towards striking political deals with the powers-that-be in Sri Lanka itself, namely, the mainstream Sinhala parties.

In turn, the mainstream Sri Lankan political parties saw the value of the IOT vote bank and were keen on striking deals with the CWC.

And over a period of a decade, governments gave citizenship to virtually all IOT.

While S Thondaman's service in this respect was invaluable, he did not uplift the community economically and socially.

Adequate political representation in parliament, government and the local bodies, did not translate into economic benefits for the poor majority.

The small elite among the IOT, who were traders in Colombo, and who had nothing to do with the plantations, benefited from the rise of the CWC as a force in Sri Lankan politics.

The plantation workers merely voted as told, and got little or nothing in return, except physical protection and some increase in wages from time to time.

Educational and economic backwardness continued to be the hallmarks of the community.

India kept up its links with S Thondaman and the CWC and continued to keep an Assistant High Commissioner in Kandy, the capital of the Central Province, which had the single largest concentration of IOT. But India had little or no role in the life of the plantation worker.

IOT move to identify with Sri Lankan Tamils

There is a tendency in India, and indeed the rest of the world, to look at only the Sri Lankan Tamils and not the IOT.

This is because the Sri Lankan Tamils attract attention. They are aggressive, articulate, educated and international, while the IOT are not. Many of the IOT themselves have moved away from India and want to consider themselves "Sri Lankan Tamils".

Many identify themselves with the aspirations of the Sri Lankan Tamils and even support the LTTE, which is their "sole representative."

The Sri Lankan Tamils are a more advanced community, and in the context of the LTTE-led armed struggle, their sense of power has also gone up.

The IOT would like to be part of this powerful community, rather than keep its identity by maintaining its links with India. About 200,000 IOT have already registered themselves in the census as Sri Lankan Tamils.

First Published: Jan 09, 2006 13:25 IST