“The tea fields of Ceylon are a true monument to courage” – Sir AC Doyle
These words uttered decades ago, could still be endorsed today. The once vibrant and profit generating Ceylon Tea, is a legend in itself. It is a relentless journey filled with vicissitude and victory. A story, which today, is sadly tainted with political hues.
British Ceylon under Sir Edward Barnes saw the blossoming of the Coffee enterprise, and in 1870 British Ceylon was the world’s number one exporter of coffee, a fact known by few today. It was this growth that paved way for the trunk route – the road from Kandy to Colombo. In 1869 a plant disease, coffee rust, claimed some crops in Madulsima area, and within a few years all the coffee plantations of British Ceylon were wiped out.
It is certainly the prime responsibility of all plantation companies to create and maintain in their estates not only productive tea factories, but also a lifestyle conducive to healthy living. A lifestyle where a community is bound by dignity, trust and respect
It was in this backdrop that James Taylor came to Ceylon and settled in the resplendent hills of Loolecondera, Galaha. He began the first tea plantation. Shortly he met another likeminded Scotsman, Thomas Lipton. These pioneers laid the foundation for the tea industry. The soil of the hill country’s plantations is literally enriched with the blood, sweat and tears of thousands of men and women.
In the recent past, there had been vociferous protests by plantation workers making various demands. Similar demands have been made for decades. As said by John Kennedy, “Efforts and courage are not enough without purpose and direction.” There needs to be a clear purpose for these hardworking folk than a simple wage increase. But perhaps even unknown to the robust worker are greater demands, within the plantation community.
Primary of these is the case of being accepted as Sri Lankan citizens. Whilst all these workers have Sri Lankan identity, often it is limited to a document. Society still insults them as migrants of Indian origin. This stigma must be halted at once.
Let us look at modern America, where thousands of Hispanic people live and work, they are respected as Americans. In England, Jamaican migrants live as British nationals. Yet often for petty politics in independent Sri Lanka, these brothers and sisters of the plantations are reminded of their Indian origin. Even at the recently concluded Parliamentary Elections, the thousands of Sri Lankans living in the plantation sector did not get proportionate representation.
Secondly, the free education system has not yielded fruitful results. There is certainly an increase in people who can read and write, but that is not enough. It seems that there is an invisible force that somehow desires to limit the level of knowledge of these citizens, so that their generations are destined to live and work the green hills forever. There are hundreds, who have come to Colombo, yet they do mediocre jobs – ‘Estate youth’ as they are branded, work in the busy textile and gold jewellery shops of Pettah and Wellawatte. Luckily few have gone onto to be quite prosperous. Hundreds of young girls are kept as domestic aides, a refined tag for a servant, in the city’s residential bastions. Sadly many of these girls endure emotional and mental trauma at the hands of their Masters and Madams. These girls return to their estate homes, as single mothers with illegitimate children.
Another demon that dominates the men of the plantation sector is their faithful addiction to alcohol. This is a serious issue. Its origins lie not in the desire for a drink, but in a community that basically has nothing to offer its hardworking men in the form of interactive entertainment. Once the sunsets on the verdant mountains so does severe boredom. Given the limitations in public transport the men have nothing to do until bed time. The only option is to gather under a tree and drink. This practice finally affects their working capacity, and also robs them of whatever money they could save. Today with the advent of electricity many are finding solace in watching movies, with more alcohol by their side!
It is certainly the prime responsibility of all plantation companies to create and maintain in their estates not only productive tea factories, but also a lifestyle conducive to healthy living. A lifestyle where a community is bound by dignity, trust and respect. “The time is always right to do what is right,” words of Martin Luther King must resonate in the hills of Sri Lanka.
Thousands of estate workers, perhaps unknowingly live in a ‘Job syndrome’ (the character of Job from the Bible, where he becomes immune to his suffering). In this day female workers must let go of tradition that hinders practical living. Wearing a cumbersome saree on a wet slope with a heavy basket of tea is unwise. Walking barefoot will indeed attract leeches and bleeding toes. These women must be mentally set free, to wear comfortable pants and shirts and shoes. The male folk must first be made to understand the true value of a working woman. Family planning is another key factor, often ignored.The plantation community must be liberated, with positive thinking. As Bob Marley sang ‘Emancipate yourself from mental slavery none but ourselves can free our minds.’