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Life is not easy on the tea estates

BOTH Sri Lanka’s ethnic Sinhalese majority and the Tamil minority think of themselves as original, indigenous inhabitants of the island—an important prop to their political claims and counterclaims. But there is one group of Tamils who are relatively recent arrivals, and whose status has suffered accordingly. The first 10,000 “hill-country Tamils” came to work in the island’s nascent coffee plantations in 1827 as indentured labourers. They marched on foot through rough terrain to isolated camps in the jungle, which they then set about clearing. Many died. But the prospect of work in Sri Lanka’s booming tea industry, along with famine, poverty and landlessness back in India, led many more to make the journey.

Today the hill Tamils number almost 1m, accounting for over 4% of Sri Lanka’s population. They live mainly on or near tea estates in the mountainous interior of the island, not in the north and east, home to most Sri Lankan Tamils. That put them outside the homeland that Tamil separatists fought for during the long civil war, and leaves them marginalised within the Tamil minority. They remain one of the country’s poorest and most neglected groups.

Until recently, many hill-country Tamils were not entitled to vote. Laws passed after Sri Lanka became independent from Britain in 1948 stripped them of citizenship. Subsequent repatriation agreements saw large numbers deported to India without their consent. Sri Lanka eventually granted citizenship to the rest, but only in stages. Some 300,000 were stateless until 2003—with an “X” on their identity cards to highlight their lowly status.
The mean income among estate workers is a quarter less than that of other rural labourers. Some 11% of hill-country Tamils are poor, well above the national figure of 7%. More than half drop out of school by the age of 15. Only 2% pass any A-levels, exams taken at the age of 18, compared with 11% among other rural pupils.
Housing is another problem: 83% of Sri Lankans lived in their own houses in 2012, but only 22% of estate workers did. Two-thirds of the accommodation on plantations is in barrack-style “line-rooms” or sheds. These are not only rudimentary; their occupants’ right to live in them is murky. But between 1980 and 2014 fewer than 1,000 houses a year were built on tea and rubber plantations, even though the area has Sri Lanka’s highest fertility rate.

Hill-country Tamils also suffer from higher rates of malnutrition. Fewer than half have access to safe drinking water. At a plantation near Hatton, a family of six crams into a single tiny room, built in the 1930s, with no running water and only a primitive, shared latrine. The oldest child, who is 16, has already dropped out of school to care for her younger brother, who has heart problems. There is electricity, but no modern appliances.
Small wonder that the young are quitting the plantations in search of work in garment factories or on construction sites elsewhere in the country. Those that remain are becoming more politically active. In a paper presented last year to a government task force looking at how to defuse communal tensions in the wake of the civil war, local activists demanded an apology from the state for the disenfranchisement, deportation and neglect of hill-country Tamils. There was much talk of the “restoration of dignity and respect”. The government has paid some attention, promising to make it easier for Tamils living on estates to gain title to their homes.

Some hope that greater knowledge of their circumstances will help. In May Narendra Modi, India’s prime minister, paid a visit to Dickoya, in the heart of tea-growing country. To rapturous applause he announced that his government would build 10,000 more cottages for locals in addition to 4,000 already completed. “People think Sri Lankan Tamils mean only those of the north and east,” said T. Ravi, a bus conductor who attended Mr Modi’s rally in Dickoya. “But now they know about us and can do something for us also.”

(This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “A minority within a minority”)