Policy promise becomes a reality

The land ownership of Plantation Community is a long standing demand. Political parties, civil society organizations and other intellectuals have been demanding land ownership right for this community for a long time. Several promises have been made by previous governments, especially, with regard to ownership of housing.

However, in the past, importance had been assigned only to the construction of houses and not to ownership. After the Presidential election in January 2015, in the government’s 100 day program, an activity was incorporated to provide land ownership and proper housing to Plantation workers, instead of their current confinement in line rooms.

During this period a deed “Haritha Boomi” was given ensuring possessional right of the land to the legal residents in the Plantations comprising workers and non workers. However, this process was not continued.

In September 2016, at the initiative of the Minister of Hill Country New Villages, Infrastructure and Community Development, on the basis of the Joint Cabinet memo with the Ministers of Plantation Industries & Lands, Cabinet approval was obtained to provide clear title deed to ensure ownership of 7 perch of land to worker families in the Plantations, subject to certain requirements. At present, the President is to issue the clear title deeds on 9 February, for 71 newly constructed houses, in Fenkaton Division, Hauteville Estate, Agrapathana in the Nuwara Eliya District.The issue of these title deeds would be a historical event and a landmark in the transformation of the Plantation worker community.

Background

The Plantation community which evolved around the production of mainly, tea, confined to an economic system described as an ‘enclave’. The resident labour force became a pre-requisite for the production which is labour intensive. Hence, the Plantation management throughout the period, in order to sustain the supply of labour provided all facilities at a lower level to minimize the cost. This somewhat captive labour force was socially isolated without much interaction with other sectors/ societies for a longer period. Following the independence they were deprived of this citizenship, followed by voting rights. Politically, they became voiceless for well over four decades. As workers, they had to depend on the management resulting in a dependency syndrome. The public services provided by the Government reached them very slowly along with political bargaining power. Hence, the mainstreaming has became the overall demand of this community.

A major issue in the mainstreaming is the ownership of houses and changing from the captive labour to free labour. Lower educational and skills levels in the Plantation, limited the mobility of the community, both, horizontally and vertically. The continuation of free housing facilitated to a large extent the sustained supply of labour for the industry.

Policy promises

As far as ownership of housing is concerned a promise was made for the first time, in the Mahinda Chinthana 2006 as follows: “I will provide a plot of land to each Plantation worker. Through such empowerment I will support the Plantation community to stand on their own like any other citizen who owns property”. “A policy decision has been taken to grant free-hold rights to the lands where the Plantation workers’ present dwellings are located. The transaction will be carried out free of charge and stamp duties. According to the existing program, plantation workers will be eligible to receive free- hold title for 7 perches of land after 20 years. I will however grant the free- hold right to such lands”.

However, no meaningful steps were taken during 2006 – 2010 to fulfil the promise. Again, in Vision for the Future – 2010, this promise was rephrased as “One of my major goals is to make the Plantation community a house owning society. Accordingly, instead of the present ‘ line rooms’ every plantation worker family will be a proud owner of a new home with basic amenities by the year 2015”.

But again, during the 2010-2014 period, the promise remain, without any action to provide the plot of land. Also, in the Development Horizon Framework 2006 – 2016 prepared by the Department of National Planning, the section on New Life of Plantation Community although covers several areas, such as, Health, Education, Housing, Roads, Water Supply, etc. no mention was made with regard to ownership of houses.

The same promise was made by the present government. The Prime Minister in his Economic Policy statement in Parliament in November 2015, had made specific reference to land ownership of estate workers. In the medium term plan referred to in the policy statement, an important area identified was, “Ensuring land ownership to rural and estate sectors”. Referring to the ownership of lands it further stated, “We will also provide a small land and a house for estate workers who have been living in line rooms for over ten years”.

This policy statement was emphasized in both, Budget proposals in 2016 and 2017. In 2016 para 229 which refers to house ownership in general, says the ownership will be extended to those living more than 10 years in government owned houses and either sector houses as well. The budget 2017 says that the Plantation working community has been playing an important role to strengthen the economy.

To alleviate their living conditions from the line rooms, it is proposed to offer, 7 perches land with a clear title deed to each family living in line rooms. Finally, the promise which was made by the prior governments during the past decade, to provide land ownership is to be made a reality soon.

Reasons for not implementing the promise:

It is interesting to see why this ownership was dragged for such a long period. Many reasons can be attributed. Important are the perceptions of major political parties, the concerns of the Plantation Industry and the lack of bargaining power of the Political Leadership of the Community. Political antipathy towards this community having Indian Tamil identity by the main political parties for a longer period should be noted. As a result, they were deprived of their citizenship and the Srima Shasthri pact in 1964, was signed to repatriate half of this population. Accommodation of their community into the main body politic took place very slowly. Land ownership which will make them full pledged citizens was not in the agenda of the main political parties up to 2006. Thanks to the role of minority parties in the formation of the government after the elections, and Presidential form of government which highlighted the importance of the minority votes made the major parties to look at the demands politically.

The Plantation Industry has concerns about the offer of houses with clear title deeds as this may be conducive for house owners to look for jobs elsewhere but remain in the estates, which will be a detriment to the availability of labour. Also, the management feels the house owners may sell their property enabling a major inflow of outsiders not related to the industry, which may create problems.

During the period (2006 – 2014), the political leadership of this community with the government was not strong enough to demand the policy promises to be translated into action.

Significance of clear title deeds

The issue of clear title deeds will pave the way for the transformation of the estate into a village. The change of name of the Ministry from Plantation Housing, Infrastructure and Community Development to Hill Country New Villages, Infrastructure and Community Development has mandated the Ministry to establish new villages in the Plantation region. One of the main conditions for this establishment of new villages would be the ownership of houses granted to workers and freeing from Plantation Management. Thus, the new villages will be on par with other traditional villages and later on, may be transformed into townships with added amenities.

The public services provided by the government did not reach the Estate Sector compared with other sectors. Often quoted is the services rendered by the Pradeshiya Sabha. Although the estate community participates in elections and hold offices in the Sabha, its services are made available only with the consent of the Estate Management. With the formation of new villages, the Paradeshiya Sabha could undertake its activities freely without any hindrances. The other government agencies also could follow this practice.

On the basis of free labour, there are possibilities of them becoming small holders. In order to get over the wage issue, the Planters’ Association has proposed an outsourcing model. This is being debated now. The Plantation management structure would have to undergo dramatic changes to accommodate the new developments, with workers having a clear title deed and legal ownership of their houses. Upon becoming free labour, these is no compulsion for them to take-up estate work Outsourcing model may be a transitional one but the final mode would be to transform them into small holders which will of course be politically and socially a sensitive issue.

Related issues

At present, the issue of title deeds has been confined only to worker families. But, there are legal residents, descendants of the worker parents, who continue to live within the estates, but look for livelihood outside the estates. What is the position of this category after the death of the worker parents? This number is on the increase.

A majority of the estate staff, although the number is very low, have their roots in the estates.

During the past, under several housing programs, around 31,000 single houses have been built. Of them, around 3,900 house owners have paid their loans. In addition, several houses are being built under Indian housing and normal Ministries housing programs. During the 100 day program, 1,098 house owners have been provided with possessional deeds. All these categories deserve to be provided with clear title deeds.

In a market oriented economy, the sale of the houses is unavoidable and if it is allowed there may be a greater inflow of outsiders into the estates which may be detrimental to the Plantation sector. No restriction can be placed in the title deed which may be an interference on human rights. If there is a link between the houses and the jobs it may be problem. However, this may be addressed.

Conclusion

The achievement of the objective of creating new villages in the plantations with house owners possessing clear title deeds, is a challenging task. The issue of clear title deed is only the beginning. It has to be pursued to all other categories, which are entitled legally. A master program with a suitable bloc out plan, environmentally friendly land and identified beneficiaries must be in place. The people must be trusted and mobilized for this purpose. Financial resources, implementation capacity, people involvement and willingness of management, and most importantly the political leadership, are essential to achieve the desired objective.

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