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Pettah is undoubtedly the most vibrant and busiest commercial hub in Colombo city. The word is believed to have originated from the Anglo-Indian phrase pettai meaning a suburb outside a fort, as this was the layout years ago. When walking the streets of Pettah one cannot ignore the carts laden with heavy boxes and sacks being drawn by men, drenched in perspiration, whose skin has been stained by the scorching sunlight. Their strong arms and legs display an intricate network of bulging varicose veins, brought upon by strain. Men with an indifferent temperament resulting from social stigma and verbal abuse by one and all.
Indeed the humble nattami (labourer) is the moving force that distributes goods like dry fish, imported grains and pulses, textiles and electronic goods between wholesale traders, lorries and warehouses. Though society has evolved along with many trends, the life of the enslaved nattami remains a daily battle for survival, plagued by many issues. One must reflect on the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Labour is the superior of capital, and therefore deserves much higher consideration.”

They belong to a multi-cultural community that speaks Tamil and Sinhalese. Their religious inclinations reflect Islam, Buddhism, Hinduism and Christianity. Hundreds of these men never had the chance of a pragmatic education, though some have sat for the GCE Ordinary level exams. Unskilled and having zero knowledge of the English language, they could find no other employment. They drag their heavy carts in all weather conditions amidst the rush of confusing vehicular traffic. Most of the wooden carts are taken for daily hire, amidst accusations of high daily rental. There were instances when fibre glass carts with lighter tires were introduced, yet the rigorous work and heavy loads can only be sustained on the heavy wooden carts. Some nattamis earn around Rs 15,000 a month, yet this is terribly insufficient to pay their cart hire, house rents, meals and needs of school-going children.

The role of the nattami is extended to the Peliyagoda fish market and other markets in Narahenpita and Dematagoda areas. All successive governments of the past five decades failed to implement a programme to uplift the lives of these people. It is very refreshing to note that the present administration has introduced the concept of a Megaplois development zone, and hopes to relocate the bazaar and wholesale operations. Once this is done will the services of the nattami be required? Hopefully, the relocated wholesale distribution operations will be streamlined and use other transport facilities. A system must be implemented to give alternate employment to the present nattami work force, and training in some other basic skill, which will provide them a steady income. As the amiable Mahatma Gandhi opined, “the labourer must be assured not only of a living wage, but a daily task that is not a mere drudgery.”

The nattami community faces many social issues. Ostracized by society, they live in crowded rooms that lack sanitation. They hardly have any cash to spend and indulge in the beautiful pleasures of life, enjoyed by thousands in Colombo city. Their work has bestowed on them medical conditions such as issues with varicose veins, back pain and strained spine, knees that ache, hernia and hydrocele. Here again they don’t have enough money to get restorative medical treatment. In order to forget the vicissitudes of life, they find solace in drinking adulterated alcohol, which only hinders their health. Martin Luther King was right when he said, “All labour that uplifts humanity has dignity and importance.” The contribution by these men has never been appreciated, and they live in despair as they ponder their fate with no monetary saving upon reaching an age when they can no longer work. We are all human beings.