A house for every hill-country Tamil

What about hill-Country Sinhalese?

 T. Ramakrishnan

(By Courtesy of The Hindu)

A housing project for hill-country Tamils of Sri Lanka, launched recently, has come not a day too soon. Envisaging the construction of 4,000 houses, the project was cleared by the Indian government over four years ago. It is a component of the larger housing programme funded by New Delhi in the Northern and Eastern provinces, hit hard by the civil war that went on for over 25 years.   Of the planned 46,000 houses in the north and the east, 45,000 have come up. Even as thousands of houses were being built in the two provinces in the last four or five years, not a brick was laid in the Central and Uva provinces, where the hill-country Tamils live in large numbers. A number of reasons — political and administrative — were cited, but the project’s slow progress symbolises the plight of hill-country Tamils in the overall scheme of things in Sri Lanka. This, despite the community remaining the labour backbone of the tea industry, which records export earnings of around $1.5 billion annually, about 15 per cent of the country’s total export earnings.  

A marginalised community

Called by different names — Estate Tamils or upcountry Tamils or Tamils of recent Indian origin — the community traces its roots to Tamil Nadu, from where people of southern districts, largely Dalits, were brought in as indentured labour during the 19th and early 20th centuries to work in coffee plantations and later tea and rubber. As per the 2012 Census, the population of “Indian Tamils”, which is how the official records call them, is about 8,40,000, around 4 per cent of the total population, even though this figure is contested. The community is concentrated in the districts of Nuwara Eliya, Kandy (both in Central Province) and Badulla (Uva Province) while it is thinly spread in Matale (Central Province), Ratnapura, Kegalle (both in Sabaragamuwa) and Galle (Southern Province).   Immediately after Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948, the hill-country Tamils were placed in “political isolation” and disenfranchised through the Ceylon Citizenship Act. Only in the late 1980s was the issue of “statelessness” resolved, with the government agreeing to provide citizenship.   Yet, the problems of this category of Tamils have not received much attention both in Sri Lanka and India, especially when compared to the Sri Lankan Tamils who were at the centre stage of the Lankan civil war. Rarely do self-appointed leaders of the world Tamil community or political leaders of Tamils in the Northern and Eastern provinces champion the cause of the “other Tamils” of Sri Lanka.

Slow winds of change

There is a school of thought that the resolution of the problem of housing is a prerequisite to addressing other issues, given the social stigma still attached to “line rooms”. Recognising this, the Sirisena-Wickremesinghe government, within a few months of coming to power in January 2015, decided to allot seven perches of land (equivalent to 1,925 sq. ft.) to each plantation family. The Indian government has, on cue, revived its proposal for a housing project costing 4.2 billion Sri Lankan rupees (LKR) in the Central and Uva provinces. New Delhi will give LKR 9.5 lakh to each beneficiary, with the Sri Lankan government pitching in for amenities such as water and power supply, land-filling and building of approach roads.   Four thousand houses, however, are just a fraction of what is required: at least 1.6 million houses. In March, the Hill Country New Villages, Infrastructure and Community Development Ministry, headed by Palani Thigambaram of Nuwara Eliya, announced an action plan for investment of around $690 million in various sectors over the next five years. Housing alone accounts for about $575 million, with the ministry fixing a target of constructing 56,500 houses by 2020.   Despite their overall backwardness, the hill-country Tamils have in recent times experienced improvement on various economic and social indicators. The younger generation, no longer interested in working in the plantations where their parents and grandparents toiled, are increasingly leaving the estates despite facing, as stated by the World Bank, “stigmatisation and discrimination due to their Indian Tamil ethnicity and estate worker identity”. Empirical evidence points to the falling share of the youth population in the estates and the increasing number of senior citizens.   The plantation industry of Sri Lanka is also in the midst of a multiplicity of challenges due to widening gap between the cost of production and revenue, declining profitability, falling prices of tea and rubber, growing labour shortage and stiff competition from tea-growing countries such as Kenya and India.

Note by Sinhalanet

Since 8th Jan. 2015 pro-minority Yahapalana government has launched  several numbers of projects for Tamils at the cost of Internally Displaced Sinhala People in the Country due to 30 years of Tamil terrorism sponsored by India.

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