Upcountry Tamils of Tea Plantations
“At first, man was enslaved by the gods. But he broke their chains. Then he was enslaved by the kings. But he broke their chains. He was enslaved by his birth, by his kin, by his race. But he broke their chains. He declared to all his brothers that a man has rights which neither god nor king nor other men can take away from him, no matter what their number, for his is the right of man, and there is no right on earth above this right. And he stood on the threshold of freedom for which the blood of the centuries behind him had been spilled.” – Ayn Rand (Anthem)
I have worked and lived among them for several decades. As a baby, I have even been carried by them. Perhaps I understand their life, hopes and dreams by witnessing what they have been undergoing at least during the past half a century.
No article on Ceylon Tea will be complete if it does not account some details of the people who contributed towards shaping numerous tea plantations, their factories, bungalows, staff quarters and of course, their own dwellings called “Lines”. Their contributions have not been written in blood and sweat alone as their very souls too have been embroiled in every stage of their lives closely knitted with the plantations they lived, worked, even fought and died.
The term Estate Tamil, also called Upcountry Tamil is a distinct community little known outside Sri Lanka. They plant and grow tea bushes, harvest and manufacture the leaves which gives the finest cup of tea to the world. The best brand of teas like Lipton or Brook Bond will certainly have been blended with at least a tiny bit of Ceylon Tea produced by these people.
According to our history, the first Western power to rule part of Ceylon was Portugal. They were replaced by the Dutch who ruled major parts of Ceylon from 1658 to 1796. First they controlled only the coastal lands through the Dutch East India Company, which was later gradually expanded inland, occupying large territories in Southern, South-Western, and Western Sri Lanka. By 1665 they had expanded to the East coast, thus they were able to control most of the Cinnamon growing lands and the points of exit and entry to the island. Processing of cinnamon demanded moderately skilled labour force, many workers were recruited from neighbouring South India. This must have been the first period some of the Indian workers arrived on the island.
The British took over the island from the Dutch in 1802 and by 1815 they brought the entire island under their rule after defeating what remained of the Kandyan Kingdom. They quickly settled down to reap the harvest of Ceylon Coffee, which their predecessors planted. By 1820s, coffee planting became a popular garden plant. George Bird became the first to start planting coffee on a commercial scale. After Bird began his coffee plantation Sinhapitiya Gampola, Governor Edward Barnes also started his coffee plantations in the same area and at Gannooruwa near Kandy. We could see coffee plants in Sinhapitiya scattered among other plantations and housing settlements even today.
“ George Bird was a pioneer coffee planter and considered the father of coffee in Ceylon. He was the first to plant this crop on a commercial scale. He was the second brother of Colonel Henry Bird, Deputy Commissioner-General to His Majesty’s Forces in Ceylon during the Governorship of Lieut.-General Sir Edward Barnes K.C.B. (1824-1831).
In 1820 Mr. George Bird had commenced coffee planting in the Kandy district and in 1824 opened a coffee plantation at Sinhapitiya, near Gampola …. there can be little doubt that the establishment of Sinhapitiya Estate …. was the real beginning of what has since grown into the vast plantation industry of the present day. “ (The Planters Association of Ceylon 1864 -1954).
Image : Google.com
By then Ceylon became famous for its Coffee and was the beverage of choice among European elites. This fuelled the rush for coffee planting making investors flock to Ceylon from overseas. Around 100,000 hectares of rain forest was cleared to cultivate coffee in the 1840’s, thus the term “Coffee Rush” was coined to describe this new development.
Interestingly, the curved short knife used in Tea Estates for pruning tea bushes is called “Kopi Kaththi” in Tamil, meaning ‘Coffee Knife’ even today.
Death of Coffee and Birth of Tea!
Some notes indicate coffee blight started to hit the coffee plantations in early 1820’s and according to another account the disease was first identified in Madulsima area (near Badulla) in 1869. The first mention of the coffee leaf disease (Hemileia Vastatrix) has been recorded in the Ferguson’s Directory 1871. Until this time, the British were planting Ceylon Tea on an experimental basis but the death of Ceylon Coffee due to the rapidly spreading Coffee Blight compelled them to start Tea planting in a large scale. More and more tea estates were opened up replacing coffee plantations since every effort to contain the disease failed to revive coffee production. It is said, of some 1700 Coffee Planters, only 400 remained on the island, the rest went back to their home countries.
Tea growing required very hard working labour, but the British owners wanted such labour at a cheap price. Very few native Sinhalese were willing to work on the estates. The shortage of manual intense labour threatened to end the tea industry before it really took off. The British controlled most of the Indian subcontinent including the South during that time. When the South Indians, most of them Tamils, were undergoing severe hardships due to a massive drought in their areas, mass unemployment of farmers prevailed resulting in mass starvation. The British Estate owners saw the answer to their labour shortage. It was so easy for them to import the Tamil workers to work on Tea estates. Within a short time, hundreds of thousands of Tamil families from South India started arriving. Mass migration of Tamil families started in 1824 to work in coffee plantations and later for tea plantations, which continued till about 1922.
Looking at the history of Estate Tamils, I have seen accounts that thousands of families were brought on foot from India up to the Mannar Gulf, crossed into Ceylon by boats and Catamarans. Many perished on their way and those who survived had to walk over 200 miles through jungles. Some died due to Malaria and many were attacked by wild animals.
With more and more acres of forest land getting cleared all over the Upcountry region, more workers had to be brought down to the island. The estate owners employed recruiters who were called “Kanganies” who regularly visited their native villages in South India for recruitment of cheap workers. One famous phrase they used in Tamil to make recruiting easy was “Tea estates in Ceylon are literally flowing with milk and honey” as milk and honey were treated super luxuries by the Tamil villagers at the time. The Kanganies had several assistants to help with their recruitment drives, and they were called “Sub-Kanganies.” The chief recruiter was thus called “Head Kangany” most of whom later became either Field Officers in their estates, or their descendants becoming the first educated elites from among the Upcountry Tamils. Many of them later became famous professionals or big businessmen in towns and cities.
Any worker thus brought down by a Kangany (or headman) was paid a certain sum of money for each day of work by the worker and it was called “Pence” money. A Head Kangany who recruited a large number of workers, thereby received relatively large sums of money every month, based on the number of days worked by his ‘gang’ of workers, for the month. This system was going on even in the 1970’s and gradually ceased when all workers in the estates came under “Estate Gangs” or not under any Kangany. Sub Kanganies under a Head Kangany usually brought most of his own kith and kin or of his own caste. This resulted in cast based groups of workers in most estates. Even the Line Rooms were allocated to the incoming workers according to their castes.
Support from Head and Sub Kanganies were vital for politicians and trade unionists even today.
Ceylon Tea took to a flying start. It was very unfortunate that the Estate Tamils “imported” by the British were viewed as foreign ‘guest workers’ even by local Tamils until recently. They were ignored by everyone; few Estate Schools were built for education up to about Grade 5 giving some basic education in Tamil. However, the British owners provided them with some basic needs, such as water through small water tanks built among tea fields, and foot paths paved with rough stones. Such basic infrastructure could be found even today without much improvement, long after the foreigners left. They were fed through the ‘Ration’ system to make sure they were physically fit to accomplish their daily task in the tea field or factory.
Estate Tamils were either not interested or not allowed to take part in any Independence Movement of the 1940s as their isolation ensured they never formed political or social connections which would have made them to participate in such a movement. The end result was they did not know anything about what was to come to their very existence in Ceylon, the country they thought was going to be their mother land.
By 1946, the total number of South Indians had grown to about 780,000, 11.7% of the population, when the Sinhalese constituted about 69.4%, thus the Sinhalese naturally resented the presence of ‘aliens’ in the country. The island gained Independence on 4th February 1948. The newly formed Sinhalese-dominated government brought the Ceylon Citizenship Bill before Parliament. Outwardly, the Bill was to provide means of obtaining citizenship to the Indian Tamils, but in reality it discriminated against them by denying them citizenship. The Bill stipulated that (a) those who wish to obtain citizenship had to prove that their father was born in Ceylon, and (b) that they were at least 3rd generation immigrants.
These rules became impossible to be met for most as (a) many Indians used to go back to India for child-births and return after some time, (b) those who were really ‘third generation’ immigrants rarely had the necessary documents because they rarely registered their births. Therefore, they could not prove the requirements for citizenship.
The Bill was fiercely opposed in Parliament by the Ceylon Indian Congress (later known as Ceylon Workers Congress or CWC) and the Sinhalese Leftist parties.
The Bill was passed on 20th August 1948 and became Law on 15th November 1948, less than an year after Ceylon gained its independence from Britain. It resulted in more than 700,000 people being denied citizenship while only about 5,000 of the Indian Tamils qualified for Sri Lankan citizenship.
I am inclined to mention something that my father used to say when I was a young boy. He was the Chief Clerk of an estate where he had helped a large number of workers prove their citizenship rights by obtaining the legal documents required. The result was this particular estate had proportionately a large number of voters among the Estate Tamils. Though we belonged to a different community, my father was proud that even Mr. S. Thondaman of CWC, the onetime most prominent personality and considered patriarch of the Estate Tamils, had visited this estate for his political/trade-union work and had met my father personally.
Politics and Power
Even long after this period, the Estate Tamils were isolated socially and politically. Slowly, but surely, their ties with South India started to diminish, though they were much attracted to South Indian films and their politics. Their homes (Line Rooms) were donned with pictures and magazines of their film idols and some Tamil Nadu leaders like C.N. Annadurai, MG Ramachandran – the actor turned politician or M. Karunanidhi, indicating their political interests still laid with their country of origin. However, the generations that followed became more involved with local politics and trade unionism, thanks to leaders like Mr. S. Thondaman, M. A. Azeez, and C.V. Velupillai, and other leaders who succeeded them.
The remaining Estate Tamils of Indian origin continued to struggle for their day-to-day existence. They had the lowest life expectancy of any community in Sri Lanka, highest illiteracy rates and lowest income, most live in abysmal housing built during the Colonial days with little or no improvement. A significant event took place on 29th October 1964, when the government led by Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranayake, the world’s first Woman Prime Minister, signed a pact with the Indian Prime Minister, known as ‘SIRIMA-SHASTRI PACT’.’ This Pact paved the way for the repatriation of 525,000 ‘stateless’ plantation Tamils of Indian origin to India. Another 300,000 persons were to be accepted as citizens of Sri Lanka, which made them enter the polity, leaving a residue of 150,000. Thus the fate of a total of 975,000 Tamils of Indian origin who were not accepted as citizens of Ceylon was supposed to have been sealed on that day one way or another. The Pact was indeed a breakthrough. Some of the salient points under this Agreement were:
- All persons of Indian origin in Ceylon who have not been recognized as citizens of Ceylon or as citizens of India should become citizens of either Ceylon or India.
- The total 975,000 of such persons as of date, did not include illicit immigrants and Indian passport holders.
- 300,000 of these persons, together with the natural increase in that number will be granted Ceylon citizenship by the Government of Ceylon. The Indian government will accept repatriation of 525,000 persons together with the natural increase in that number. The Indian Government will grant citizenship to these persons.
- The status and future of the remaining 150,000 of these persons will be the subject of a separate agreement between the two governments.
- The Indian government will accept repatriation of the persons to be repatriated within a period of 15 years from the date of this agreement, according to a programme as evenly phased as possible.
I remember as a junior officer at an Estate office, I helped to fill application forms for families who opted to return to India. Quite a number of them received their Indian Passports, but only a few families did leave. Others hesitated, probably because news trickled back that some of those who returned to their ancestral villages in South India had been physically harmed by people who had already occupied their lands for a few generations did not want to part with them. Some returnees were settled in tea plantations in Ooty or Kodaikanal in South India.
Though the Sirma-Shastri Pact was a historical agreement to settle the stateless problem, implementation became almost impossible, after the ethnic civil war engulfed the country in 1983. During this period, the then President Mr. J.R. Jayawardene granted Sri Lankan Citizenship to all those deemed ‘stateless’. He thought such a move could keep his United National Party’s vote base intact for ever. The new development gave the Estate Tamils a great advantage politically. In subsequent Elections they won a large number of seats in the National State Assembly, Provincial Councils and other local bodies, in places where their presence was overwhelming.
While the Estate Tamils were engaged in their day-to-day struggle for better wages and better living and working conditions, the ethnic war with the LTTE dominated the country, tearing it apart. Estate Tamil votes became vital to any government as the main parties had to depend on them to win outright parliamentary majority. No government wanted any link to develop between the Estate Tamils and the LTTE, and therefore the Estate Tamils received some minimum concessions.
More and more people who were traditionally classed as “estate workers” have started to leave estate life to find alternate jobs in cities. Many estate women have found employment as domestic servants in the cities and some have even gone to Middle Eastern countries as house maids. Poor wages in the estate sector is the main reason for the change of worker attitude and it has become increasingly difficult for estate management to find resident workers, despite many improvements to living conditions within the estates.
Housing, Sanitation & Water Supply – Line Rooms have been converted to cottages – Electrification of worker accommodation – Ownership of these accommodations have been given to the workers, allowing them to rebuild them on self-help basis – Ownership of vegetable plots – Small scale dairy farms – Libraries and reading rooms on estates – Improved Creches or Day Care facilities for children. These sound nice to read, but in fact, how many of the workers really enjoy them?
Hundreds of estates still have tremendous problems which have continued for decades. The Line Rooms have been converted to ‘cottage-type’ houses in many estates, but the occupants have not been given Title Deeds to their legal ownership along with the vegetable plots. The hygiene conditions have not been fully addressed. The water service has not been upgraded.
It is to be noted the workers who leave for outside employment continue to keep the accommodation given to them on estates as under the existing laws their accommodations cannot be taken back by the estate owners. Therefore, from the perspective of the employers, new workers cannot be brought from outside to fill vacancies since there are no sufficient accommodation for the new-comers. This has become a serious issue which could affect the future of Ceylon Tea.
Education & Sports – Plantation management still controls early childhood education and Creches. A Creche is where custodial care is given to children while the mothers are at work. The Creche Attendant is usually supervised by the Estate Medical Assistant or a Welfare Officer. Many estates have a Preschool Teacher who also works as Creche Attendant, thereby the concept of preschool education is nullified. Preschool buildings and Creches have become necessities for all plantations. Sadly, I have not come across any teachers who are qualified to teach or look after ‘differently-able’ children, though there may be some.
There are hundreds of outstanding young sportsmen from the plantations who have never been recognized and might never be, under the present social system. There are no organized sports bodies for estate workers. I have personally known many talented sportsmen who could have proven better than most other national level players had they been given a chance, especially in the field of athletics, volley ball, cricket and soccer.
Health – Health services for plantation workers have continued to be a major problem. Most estates employ Estate Medical Assistants who are able to provide limited / basic medical care to estate workers. Any difficult or major medical requirement for patients and pregnant mothers has to be referred to the nearest government hospital. In most estates, the road conditions are so bad, those travelling to other hospitals get themselves into worse medical situations while travelling. Malnutrition is rampant among the estate population with high mortality rates.
Economic Development – It is sad, people who contribute so much towards the economy of this beautiful country, live in poverty. Poverty in the Estate Sector is the highest in the country. The state economic and industrial program does not cover the Plantation sector. In the vast plantation areas from Uva to Bogawantalawa / Maskeliya, there are hardly any government technical colleges or vocational training centres to be seen which are open to estate children. Estate children have little or no scope of joining jobs in the public sector or the state security service.
Three Wheeler Turn Around!
One of the biggest problems in the plantation areas is the transport facilities from place to place. Through my childhood experience I have personally seen the lack of public transport system in this most important economically vibrant area which brings in the country’s main foreign exchange. I remember there used to be a single bus running between my house and the nearest town in with school children and adult passengers, mostly estate workers, used to get literally packed like sardine twice a day, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. I had the luxury of travelling in my father’s car for some time but it was short lived after he sold his car. The problem gradually improved with the take over of buses in 1958, yet it did not solve the transport problem fully.
Neglected roads, lack of sufficient buses on the road and remoteness of most estates made the workers undergo immeasurable sufferings. Their children had to walk long distances to schools; pregnant women found it difficult to attend hospitals and clinics and men had to carry loads of provisions on their heads walking several miles and miles. However, the situation changed rapidly when workers started buying their own vehicles like small vans and Three Wheelers from their retirement benefits.
During the past ten years or so, a large number of workers have begun to have their own ‘Three Wheeler Taxis’ in every nook and corner of estate areas. This is a tremendous achievement from a section of people who silently suffered due to lack of transport facilities, their plights were neglected by the successive governments for too long.
Today, we see these vehicles even in the most treacherous and steep roads proving these people have decided to look after themselves in this important phase of their daily life. A decade ago, owning a TV or telephone by a tea estate worker was a dream. Today, almost every family owns these items in its household. It shows that gone are the days the estate worker was considered the most backward person in Sri Lanka.
There are thousands of young men from the plantations now employed in the cities and they ckeep in constant touch with their families through cell-phones, another huge facility they came into possession!
Leaders who changed the fate of Indian Tamils:
- D.S.Senanayake – Prime Minister of Ceylon from 1947 to 1952
- Mrs. Sirimavo Bandaranayake – Served as Prime Minister of Ceylon and Sri Lanka three times, 1960-65, 1970-77 and 1994-2000.
- Mr. J.R. Jayawardane – Served as Prime Minister from 1977 to 1978 and as President from 1978 till 1989.
- Mr. Saumiamoorthy Thondaman (Aug 30, 1913 – Oct 30, 1999) – Leader, Ceylon Workers’ Congress.
In summary the Estate Tamils are no more ignorant of what is going on around them. They are able to take part in the country’s politics with several members entering the Parliament, Provincial Councils and other statutory bodies. Their children are able to find education or higher education through their own hard work and dedication. They have produced a significant number of businessmen, writers, poets, artists, educationists and professionals.
Today there are several politically affiliated trade unions who constantly demand a wage rise. Though very reasonable, their demands have not been fully met while the cost of living keep rising faster than anyhone can cope with. So an average estate worker is still economically far off than most other sectors of Sri Lanka.
Since I left Sri Lanka for good, I am not fully aware of the present happenings in my area of passionate interest, but wish Sri Lanka’s Plantations and the people a very happy and prosperous future.