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Serving Sri Lanka

This web log is a news and views blog. The primary aim is to provide an avenue for the expression and collection of ideas on sustainable, fair, and just, grassroot level development. Some of the topics that the blog will specifically address are: poverty reduction, rural development, educational issues, social empowerment, post-Tsunami relief and reconstruction, livelihood development, environmental conservation and bio-diversity. 

Friday, October 07, 2005

Sri Lanka's 'forgotten' tea workers

BBC News: 28/09/2005" By Dumeetha Luthra

There is no electricity for daily tasks in Malar Malligai's simple, concrete home in central Sri Lanka.

Gripping her baby with one hand, she pounds the flour for the family's daily meals with the other.

Two generations of her family have worked on tea plantations in the country, which are some of the most deprived places on the island.

There is a growing resentment among tea garden workers in the hilly part of the country - home to most of the tea plantations.

For them, the tsunami has highlighted how much they have been ignored. They feel money has come in for tsunami relief but their plight has been forgotten.

Opportunities scarce

The hills in this part of the island resonate with the past and the present. It is an idyllic scene with tea plantations as far as the eye can see.

However, the beauty is only skin deep, for this is one of Sri Lanka's poorest regions.

The tea pickers' wages depend on how many leaves they collect. Their average earnings are about $60 a month.

The workers want something different for their children.

But as Malligai's brother, Perumal Thirulogasunther, explains, opportunities are scarce.

"We are angry because we are not getting any help. No assistance is given to the hill country people. We need houses, electricity."

Spokesman for the think-tank Foundation for Co-Existence, Sathivel Balakrishnan, says the plantation workers have been deprived for decades.

"They feel sympathy for those affected by the tsunami. But definitely, the amount of aid that's coming and the way the government has been generating and mobilising resources for tsunami reconstruction will invariably have an impact among the tea plantation workers, especially the youth," he says.

"Why is the government not generating assistance for their development?"

Barely touched

Even basic facilities for the tea plantation workers are rare.

There is no running water here, only the back-breaking slog of pulling up buckets from a well.

The houses here were built under the British more than half a century ago.

They have been hardly touched since.

Tea brought in over $700m last year but less than one per cent was spent on workers' living conditions.

Each kilogram of leaves, carefully weighed and signed for, brings in foreign exchange to the country.

For more than a century, these leaves have helped sustain the island.

The government argues things are improving.

"We have not neglected them. We are trying our best to allow the next generation at least to be able to stand up and live as normal citizens of this country," says Anura Yapa, the plantations and industry minister.

The government accepts their living conditions are bad, but it denies the accusation that they have been forgotten.

The tea plantation workers are thankful they have not suffered anything like a tsunami. And the disaster relief effort is certainly not without serious problems.

But for tea workers watching the relief money pour in, it again shows that they are the abandoned and isolated of the island.

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