The visit of Indian Premier, Narendra Modi to the Central Province of Sri Lanka gained widespread publicity owing to presence of Tamils of Indian origin in the estate sector.
This was the first time that Modi visited the hill country in his two visits to the island nation.
The estate sector has a history of its own. These workers were probably the forgotten segment of Sri Lanka for decades until recently.
While all the focus went to the North and the Eastern provinces and the welfare of the minorities living in these regions, the hill country Tamils received little or no attention during the 30 years the country was faced with the brutal war.
For decades the estate workers struggled to obtain their Sri Lankan citizenship.
If you travel to the hill country and to the estate plantations, you would see for yourselves the condition in which these workers live in.
They live in what you call ‘line houses’. Today some of these houses may have facilities, including satellite televisions. But, there are many who continue to live in paltry conditions.
One should not forget that these are the people who toil hard to bring in revenue to the country, thanks to the tea that is exported to several parts of the world.
Over the years, the issues faced by the estate sector workers had been predominantly ignored, mainly due to the war that had taken center stage in the Sri Lankan political environment.
But they too faced their share of problems during times of trouble.
Statistics reveal that there are close to one million Tamils of Indian origin in Sri Lanka islandwide, most of them in the hill country and in the estate sector. The others are spread out in several parts of the country, including the Western Province.
Though they were brought down as labourers, the workers demanded that they be recognized as Sri Lankan citizens so that they too would be privy to basic facilities.
These demands were overshadowed by the civil war and other things, which resulted in the process dragging for decades.
By early 1990s however, the Sri Lankan authorities initiated a process to provide the estate workers with Sri Lankan citizenship. That too dragged for quite a while. But by the early 2000s the process was complete and all estate sector workers were recognized as Sri Lankans.
The estate sector workers were faced with several social issues. Since most of them were estate workers, they depended on daily wages, which they claimed was inadequate. The workers’ wages are based on the collective agreement with the plantation companies which is renewed every two years.
The recent slump in world tea prices hit the estate sector workers where the collective agreement was not signed for over a year until October last year.
The estate sector is also plagued with several other issues including the use of alcohol which has resulted in problems within families due to domestic violence.
Although steps have been taken to control the issue through awareness programmes and other initiatives, there are those isolated incidents which continue to be a bother.
Their plights have been frequently brought to the fore during election campaigns as is the case with other communities in Sri Lanka. But, these workers left their homes in Tamil Nadu hoping for a better life here.
Granting citizenship would not suffice if they do not feel at home.