People Of Indian Origin In Sri Lanka: The Exploted And Marginalised – Book Review


By Dr. V. Suryanarayan

A. S. Chandra Bose and P.P. Sivapragasam, Red Colour of Tea: Central Issues that Impact on the Plantation Community in Sri Lanka (A publication of Human Development Orgnisation, Kandy, 2012), pp 159, Price Sri Lankan Rupees 500/-

I was associated with the Department of Political Science, University of Peradeniya as a Visiting Professor few years ago. Among the rich collection in the Ceylon section of the University library, I came across the Memoirs of Philip Crowe, the US Ambassador in Ceylon in the 1950’s. To quote Philip Crowe:

The estate bungalows are roomy, surrounded by lovely
gardens. Servants are plentiful and relatively cheap.
Social life is mainly limited to the local club consisting
of a tennis court and a bar. There, at weekends, the
planters gather for bridge, gossip, drink, billiards and
tennis. Somerset Maugham might not find the makings
of a great novel immediately, but the pleasures of life
in the small tea communities in Ceylon are apparent.

C.V. Velu Pillai, the sensitive Indian Tamil poet, has given a contrasting picture of the workers’ lives:

Here is but a row of tin roofed lines
the only warehouse where serfdom thrives
with a scant space of ten by twelve
there is the hearth, home drenched in soot and smoke
to eat and sleep, to incubate and breed
to meet the master’s greed.

The Red Colour of Tea is a factual, at the same time, sensitive analysis of important issues that have a bearing on the lives of the Malaiha Tamils, who live mainly in the tea plantations of Sri Lanka. The book is written from the perspective of human rights. The concise volume bears the imprint of rigorous research and a deep understanding of the subject. This lucidly written book is a path breaking study and will be of invaluable use to all those interested in understanding the lives of the Malaiha Tamils.

Few words about the authors will be in order. Dr. Chandra Bose, who is currently working as Senior Lecturer in the Open University of Sri Lanka, is the first PhD holder from the hill country Tamils. By dint of hard work and single minded determination he was able to make a mark for himself in the field of higher education. An alumnus of the Peradeniya University, from where he took his Bachelors and Masters Degrees, Chandra Bose was awarded a Government of India scholarship to pursue his doctoral research. He got admission in the Centre for Regional Development in the Jawaharlal Nehru University and qualified himself for the PhD degree. His doctoral dissertation is an in-depth comparative study of the plantation economies of India and Sri Lanka. I am sure that Dr. Chandra Bose will publish the dissertation soon as a book. The co-author Sivapragasam is an equally talented scholar and is actively associated with the Human Development Organisation in Kandy. He is an activist committed to the overall human development of the plantation community. He has authored number of books, contributed to edited volumes in addition to research and popular articles.

The Indian Tamil community is the most disadvantaged and marginalized ethnic group in Sri Lanka. To the ruling elite in New Delhi and Colombo, they were, in the years after independence, an embarrassing set of statistics, a merchandise to be divided between the two countries in the name of good neighbourly relations; to the estate management, cheap, docile labour to be exploited to the hilt; to the casteist Sri Lankan Tamil Vellalas a group readily available for communal propaganda and to the fanatics among the Sinhalese the easiest and defenceless victims in times of communal strife.

The tea sector is the backbone of the Sri Lankan economy. The authors point out that in 2010 the export of tea reached a record level of 314.6 million kg and fetched US $ 1.37 billion as foreign exchange, which accounted for 16.7 per cent of the total foreign exchange earnings of the country. The question naturally arises, how much do the workers earn as wages? Around 4.5 per cent of the work force is employed in the tea plantations. According to the collective agreement signed between plantation trade unions and the Employers Federation, the basic wage was fixed at Rs. 285/-; attendance incentive Rs. 90/-; and price share supplement Rs 130/-, making a gross daily wage of Rs. 405/-. This wage is lowest both in terms of cost of living and in comparison with the daily wages in other sectors. The daily wage of a casual labourer in the government sector is Rs 485/-; a construction worker gets Rs. 600/- and in the private sector companies the daily wage ranges between Rs 800 and Rs. 1200. Equally relevant, the plantation worker does not work on all days. The authors point out, on the basis of their research, that the average working days of a female worker are 18.65 days in a month. whereas the male worker works only for 10.80 days. It must be pointed out that there are regional variations in the working days.

Apply any yardstick – poverty level, housing, educational attainments, health indicators, status of women – the Tamil plantation worker occupies the lowest rung of the ladder. During 2006-07, the poverty level in Sri Lanka was 15.3 per cent; whereas in the plantations it was 32.0 per cent. During the colonial period Tamil schools were started in the plantations, they performed the custodial function, not instructional function. While the overall situation has definitely improved, many the plantation schools are ill equipped and instruction in Maths and Science is of poor quality. Drop outs are a big problem and very few get admitted in the Universities for higher education. Sri Lanka’s literacy rate is 92.0 per cent, whereas in the plantations it is 76.0 per cent. Another distressing aspect of the situation is that young men and women who receive secondary education do not want to work in the plantations; they migrate to urban areas in search of employment. The workers do not own houses. The overwhelming majority still live in the coolie lines constructed by the British, which are more like a cattle sheds. Compounding the situation is the overall insecurity in the plantation areas. Though the people of Indian origin do not subscribe to the demand for Tamil Eelam and their representative organizations generally support the Government, they have been subjected to vicious attacks by the lumpen sections of Sinhalese population in times of ethnic strife. The status of the plantation community should be a matter of serious concern to the Sri Lankan Government and the only way to remedy the situation is to start a “new deal” for the upliftment of the community.

It may be relevant to compare the lives of the Sri Lankan repatriates in Tamil Nadu with that of the Tamils in the Hill country of Sri Lanka. The authors unfortunately do not devote any attention to this subject. The Sri Lankan repatriates, who came to India as Indian citizens from the late 1960’s, suffered a lot due to the indifference of the government. Unwanted in Sri Lanka and unwelcome in India, they languished in different parts of Tamil Nadu. But with the passage of time, there had been a definite improvement in their life styles. The younger generation have availed of the benefits of reservation, attend schools and colleges, and they have become technicians, skilled workers, nurses, teachers and engineers. What is more, they have successfully assimilated with the Tamils of Tamil Nadu as sugar in milk. While the elder generation still hankers for Sri Lanka the younger generation has become an integral part of the Indian society.

The difference in the life styles of the Malaiha Tamils and the Sri Lankan Tamil repatriates was graphically described by the Satyodaya Team who has made an in-depth study of the subject. To quote from their report: “We met scores of repatriates both in the plantations and in the roads. We found them universally happy about the freedom they experience in India. At the beginning, they said to us again and again, “we had lot of difficulties, as we did not know the country. Now, though the work is hard, we realize that hard work is our only gateway to the future. “Above all” they said “here we have freedom. On the other hand, in Sri Lanka, our life in the tea estate is an open prison…Here we can build our own future”.

Dr. V. Suryanarayan is Senior Professor and Director (Retd), Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies, University of Madras. His e mail address: suryageeth@sify, com


SAAG is the South Asia Analysis Group, a non-profit, non-commercial think tank. The objective of SAAG is to advance strategic analysis and contribute to the expansion of knowledge of Indian and International security and promote public understanding.

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