Echoes from the mountainside | Sunday Observer

Echoes from the mountainside

“All labour that uplifts humanity, has dignity”- Martin Luther King

All of us have experienced the view from the mountain top- at some stage of our lives. It is often an awe inspiring manifestation of natural beauty. But there remain a segment of young people who inspite of daily reaching the slopes and summits of mountains does not have that “mountain top” feeling. Even if they felt it for a few seconds it did not inspire them or enhance their weary lifestyles. Indeed this narrative is about the young workers of the tea plantations- both men and women. Sri Lanka has rightfully boasted her grand achievement of 150 years of Ceylon tea; this is a significant milestone in the nations topmost export product. It is tea that has and will continue to position this exotic nation on the global map, and remain the most talked about product in tourism branding for many years!

In fairness to some tea manufacturing companies it must be mentioned that they have individually tried to enhance the lives of their workers, through CSR initiatives. There are a few NGOs who have also helped to uplift the lives of the plantation workers. But taking the entire realm of the vast plantation sector this is not good enough. For decades these Tamil speaking workers of Indian origin have remained a marginalised community- a fact that is hard to digest. All governments since 1948 did not give these hardworking young people the due credit and appreciation for their labour. Neither did the enterprising British who built their horse stables on the tea estates and later bestowed these stables as line houses for the poor workers! Perhaps one of the decent things from the early tea industry are the long railway lines- that were built not for us to go sightseeing but to transport tea to the Colombo Harbour. Indeed the tea industry has major input to the economy and we thank the British for that. Let us deviate here for a few minutes and recall the rise of the garment workers- mostly young Sinhalese women and men on a lesser ratio. As the Export Processing Zones grew the standards of the sewing girls improved- in terms of technology and lifestyle. These women were taught to eat their lunch with fork and spoon. Some garment giants have thankfully gone onto produce international level sportsmen and sportswomen, from ordinary youth. Why is it that we don’t see this progress in the plantation industry? Can anyone recall the name of an estate youth worker who rose to fame for any reason via a tea producing factory? No, that is because even in this digital era they live as a restricted class of Sri Lankans- a fact deliberately ignored by all patriots.

It’s cool to go to the salubrious green hills and take selfies and upload them on instagram. But have you ever posted anything to bring these poor young tea pluckers a better life? People promote online petitions to save dogs and parrots but I have never seen one for the rights of these estate youth. As we all know these young women begin their day in the cold morning, eat a routine breakfast of rotti and sambol and carry their baskets into the mountains. A few hours on the job their feet are covered with leeches. The senior estate workers have their robust feet covered with varicose veins. They are prone to snake bites. Some have suffered deep cuts by rocks after falling on slippery mountain tracks. Yet they don’t file litigation. Perhaps their predicament has been brought upon by their own humility supplemented by loyalty and generations of induced ignorance. In my visits to the upcountry region I have never met a single plantation worker who can speak in English. What a strange dilemma, the key product that gets international glamour has workers who can’t even write the English names of their estates. Young estate women endure other social issues- being harassed at home by drunkard husbands and sexual harassment from supervisors often in the form of vulgar comments.

We cannot forget the young men from the tea plantations. Many work in the factories. Some work on the thilly tea gardens pruning the tea plants, cutting drains and as night watchmen. Not having a social life outside the estate they find solace in liquor- which is another ugly problem for their dependents. Those who came to the big cities for a better life have made little progress. Their working achievements have been relegated to working as salesmen in the textile shops and jewellery shops in Pettah and other locations. Other estate youth work with ponies at the Nuwara Eliya racecourse- the animals and youth looking equally malnourished. Another generation of plantation youth rots in the Colombo bazaar as nattami- daily wage laborers, who carry heavy sacks in the hot sun. Such harsh labour cannot be imagined in this modern era. Some of these men have lost touch with their estate homes and formed their own sub- clan in the Colombo city. It is time that the lives and issues of the innocent estate workers were considered at national level. Estate youth don’t have any platform to showcase their talents. They are human beings with aspirations. They too are part of the Sri Lankan nation.