Tuesday, 07 June 2022 14:37

Linking State Services to an Alienated Community

The economic crisis in the country has thrust large sections of the people into poverty. Official inflation rates are in the region of 40 %. But the price increases of many essentials have exceeded 100 to 200 %. As a result the effective income of the people has been halved. The impact is worst felt by those who are paid by the day and on fixed incomes. Those who work on the plantations constitute a very large group. Among the ethnic groups in Sri Lanka, the up country (or Malaiyaha) Tamils are notable for being historically discriminated. They are 4.12 % of the total population according to the Department of Census and Statistics Survey of 2012.

Up country Tamils have suffered long standing, systematic discrimination in university education, government employment, housing, health services, language laws, and procedures for naturalisation of noncitizens. Tomoya Obokata, UN Special Rapporteur on contemporary forms of slavery has noted that “Malaiyaha Tamils who were brought from India to work in the plantation sector 200 years ago continue to face multiple forms of discrimination based on their origin.”

After much struggle they succeeded in getting an income of Rs.1,000 per day which is less than 50 % of the market wages for labour outside of the plantation sector. Furthermore, this wage comes with many conditions by plantation companies which often prevent them from earning this amount. They have been unable to fully utilise this benefit, if it could be called such, as there is a lack of work. The fall in agricultural output due to the ill-advised fertiliser ban has given them fewer days of work.

After deductions for loans they have taken, some of them get about Rs.10,000 per month take home pay. In these circumstances, youth living on the plantations look for options outside their traditional sources of employment in the tea and rubber estates. NPC supported the People’s Development

Foundation (PDF) in Kegalle to provide plantation youth with vocational training through the government’s vocational training programme. What was noteworthy about this initiative was that it took place by linking the state delivery system with the plantation management and the communities in a tripartite relationship through the facilitation of civil society.

The educational opportunities for estate children are abysmal. Three of the youth selected for vocational training had sat for their O’Level examination but had failed on three successive occasions to pass it due to their failure in the subject of mathematics. The vocational training programme facilitated by PDF gave them access to study the Korean language with an opportunity to work in Korea, to learn sewing, hairdressing and horticulture. These opened up new horizons to the youth.

The second positive feature of this initiative is that it linked the state official in charge of vocational training with the estate community. Prior to this activity they had never visited Sapumalkanda estate. But now that the linkage had been made by PDF, the relevant state officials expressed their willingness to arrange for regular visits. They even said they could arrange for vocational training to take place on the estate itself providing there was sufficient interest on the part of the estate children.

Bus fare to the town costs about Rs.500 per day on the private bus. The state bus service offers a monthly ticket for Rs. 2,900, but there are days when it does not run. Then the private bus becomes the only option. So the offer to hold training programmes on the estate itself is a great boon if it materialises. Through this initiative PDF has played the role of a civil society catalyst and bridgebuilder between the state and the people that reduces frustration and increases trust and social capital in society.