Wednesday, February 21, 2024

NAAM 200: Celebrating the silent service of the plantation community

by damith
November 5, 2023 1:19 am 0 comment 1K views

By Ishara Jayawardane
President Ranil Wickremesinghe seated with the Guests

When President Ranil Wickremesinghe, Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena and Minister of Water Supply and Estate Infrastructure Development Jeevan Thondaman join hands at an event you can be sure that the event is in alignment with the President’s vision for a peaceful and prosperous Sri Lanka.

NAAM 200 was such an event held last Thursday at the Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium. This was the occasion commemorating 200 years since the arrival of the Indian origin plantation community in Sri Lanka.

Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, who arrived last Wednesday for a three -day visit was the Guest of Honour at the event and delivered the keynote address for NAAM 200.

The timing of her visit was indeed perfect. The event was held under the auspices of the Ministry of Water Supply and Estate Infrastructure Development. The Sugathadasa Indoor Stadium stands were filled with legions of people from the plantation community.

President Wickremesinghe expressed his deep gratitude to the Finance Minister of India, Nirmala Sitharaman, saying that without her presence the event would not have been a success. “We have to say thank you to you. Today we are a stable country, a stable economy and the three and half billion dollars made a big difference.

Important occasion

So thank you again to Prime Minister Modi and the Indian Government. This is an important occasion for all in Sri Lanka, especially for the upcountry Tamils, commemorating 200 years since the arrival of the plantation workers of Indian Origin to Sri Lanka.

We may be Sinhalese, Tamil, Burgher, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu or Christian, but one thing we have in common is that we have all benefited immensely from the upcountry Tamils.

“They are our strength and they have always been our strength. We must take this journey together. We have come united on this journey so far. So let us go boldly into the future together.

We know how you, the plantation workers, came to Sri Lanka 200 years ago from Tamil Nadu. You created a plantation economy, first coffee and then tea. You came to Sri Lanka and started your lives. Thalawakelle became a city. Kotagala, Norwood, Dick Oya, and Dayagama became residential areas. Before then, these places were uninhabited.

A new social system was created. You helped us create our economy.

“Because of the income we received from you, we built reservoirs. We developed as a country. But you faced problems when it came to citizenship. We had decided to have talks with India and solve this problem. We built a better Sri Lanka through your blood, sweat and tears. After gaining Independence, we had talks with India as to how to solve this problem,” said President Wickremesinghe.

The President made a reference to the well- known Sirima–Shastri Pact, an agreement signed between Sirimavo Bandaranaike, the Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, and Lal Bahadur Shastri, the Prime Minister of India, on October 30, 1964.

It was a significant agreement in determining the status and future of people of Indian origin in Ceylon. More than 525,000 stateless Tamils were accepted by India and 300,000 were given citizenship in Sri Lanka.

“Later another agreement was signed between Sirimavo Bandaranaike, Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, and Indira Gandhi, Prime Minister of India, on June 28, 1974 to solve the problem of 150,000 people of Indian origin. The remaining stateless Tamils were given citizenship in Sri Lanka under President J.R. Jayewardene in 1986.

“Minister Savumiamoorthy Thondaman told us that there were some more Tamils who did not go to India and remained in Sri Lanka. I said that we cannot abandon them and they too should be given Sri Lankan citizenship. I spoke to the then Opposition Leader Mahinda Rajapaksa, and he also agreed to the suggestion. Thus, we completely solved the problem of stateless Tamils in Sri Lanka. Now they are Sri Lankan citizens.

“I must say that we made considerable progress because of Savumiamoorthy Thondaman. We joined the Cabinet together in 1978. We took our oaths together. When I became the Minister of Education, he spoke to President Jayewardene and told me to take responsibility for estate schools. I accepted this task. I worked closely with Minister Thondaman. From 1978, in every Government there has always been a Minister representing the up-country Tamils. After 1986, if you take the district of Nuwara Eliya, the majority of voters became upcountry Tamils, whereas earlier it was Sinhalese.”

He pointed out that a landmark decision was taken in the Cabinet to completely integrate the upcountry Tamils into Sri Lankan society. “A committee has been established under the guidance and leadership of the Prime Minister to do this. In addition to Minister Jeevan Thondaman, there are other Ministers in this committee. I know the problems of the upcountry Tamils well. This plantation system is outdated. So we want to establish an out grower contract system in every plantation.

After the tea is grown it is given to the factory.We have told all estate companies to implement and begin this in their estates. We want to abolish this plantation system and give all of you a plot of land so you can cultivate. Since you do not have a plot of land to build a house, we are giving you plots of land, of 10 perches each.

“The Government is also paying attention to education. Minister Jeevan Thondaman has submitted a Cabinet paper. We want to further develop school education and vocational education. Be it in Sinhala, Tamil or Muslim schools, we want to create the same high standards everywhere.

We are committed to this. I have also spoken to leaders who represent the upcountry Tamils. I have asked them to work with the Prime Minister. I am grateful to the 10,000 houses given by Prime Minister Modi. But I believe that we, the Sri Lankan Government, should build houses. We are allocating money for that. This occasion is a new beginning for the up country Tamils. It is the beginning of a new identity for Sri Lanka. So let us unite,” said the President.

Guest of Honour, Indian Finance Minister Nirmala Sitharaman, called the journey of the Indian origin Tamils, an arduous journey over the last two centuries.

“Remember their contribution to the development of Sri Lanka. It is indeed an honour for me to represent the Government of India at NAAM 200, to highlight our continued commitment and unwavering support towards the uplift of the Indian origin Tamils and their well- being.

The Indian origin Tamils were brought from Southern India, especially from Tamil Nadu as estate workers in 1820, when the British first set up coffee, tea and rubber plantations in upcountry Sri Lanka.

“Their journey was not an easy one at all, as they departed from the shores of India and landed in other parts of Northern Sri Lanka about 200 years ago. They had to clear jungles and lay footpaths and roads to travel to other up country regions. Many perished and did not survive the gruelling journey, and their hopes of starting a new life never became a reality. However, your grit, resilience and hard work have made you overcome those challenges and emerge as a unique cohesive and labour force whose role has been widely acknowledged by Sri Lanka.

Hard work

Even those who are not familiar with your story can appreciate your hard work through the growing of cherished Ceylon Tea, a major export commodity of Sri Lanka to the world, contributing nearly a billion US dollars annually.”

She said that in 1923, the British Government appointed the agent of the Government of India, to safeguard the interests and ensure the well- being of Indian immigrant laborers in Ceylon.

“It was the only office of India in Sri Lanka at the time. Today I am delighted to highlight that our assistant high commission has completed 100 years of its journey with Indian origin Tamils. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, most fondly recollects his visit in 2017 to your beautiful region in the upcountry, commencing phase 3 of the Indian housing project, India’s flagship development project.

“PM Modi announced additional 10,000 houses for the plantation workers over and above the 4,000 houses under construction in phase 3. I am happy to share that phase 3 is nearing completion with 3,700 houses already handed over to the beneficiaries. I am also glad that we are laying the foundation stone for the construction of the first lot of 10,000 houses under phase 4 of the project today as part of the NAAM 200. This will remain a special moment for our bilateral relationship.

“In July this year during the visit of President Wickremesinghe to India, our PM had announced a special grant package of Sri Lankan Rupees three billion for multi-faceted projects for the IOT Community (Indian Origin Tamils).

Under this package we have committed to undertake projects focusing on education and skills development, livelihood assistance, infrastructure development and food security.

We are commencing a few projects today itself – school bags and notebooks for students, Solar lanterns for a reliable and eco -friendly power supply and stitching units for women self- help groups.”

Minister Sitharaman said that education is the only wealth which cannot be destroyed. “Even if you have nothing but education, no one can stop your progress and growth. Education transforms, empowers and enhances your social mobility. It is for this reason the Government of India has given special focus on educational support to you as part of its developmental partnership over decades.

It was with this idea the Ceylon Estate Workers’ Education Trust was established way back in 1947. The Trust is still going strong with 700 scholarships being awarded to students for studying in Sri Lanka and in India every year. We also offer over 200 scholarships to students of Sri Lanka for higher education in India.

Taking this forward as part of a special package to IOTs, I am delighted to announce today that we will soon send teacher trainees/trainers who will work with local teachers and keep them abreast on the latest developments in the teaching field and enhance their teaching skills in meeting growing needs and aspirations of students.

I am sure these teacher trainee programs along with other projects under the package will provide a holistic developmental framework for the Indian origin Tamil community and make an impact on their livelihoods.

“We are also dedicating the upgraded Thondaman Vocational Training Centre in Hatton to the Indian origin Tamil community. That will assist in enhancing skill requirements. You are the enduring bridge that connects the people of India and Sri Lanka. You have kept your bonds with India alive.

Your resolve to preserve the culture and tradition over generations and efforts to uphold ties and connections with India are commendable and provides us confidence and vigour to further deepen the ties between our two countries.

“When Sri Lanka faced its unprecedented economic crisis a year back, we felt it was our duty to stand by with our friends in Sri Lanka. We could not bear the difficulties our friends in Sri Lanka had to face. Our Government and the people of India acted collectively and came to your assistance in record time. India rendered financial assistance of over four billion US dollars for the people of Sri Lanka.

We were the first bilateral creditor to convey financing assurance to the IMF which paved the way for others to provide similar assurances that formalised the IMF program for Sri Lanka.

As a true friend, India continues to work closely with the Government of Sri Lanka on debt restructuring discussions as well as on its path of economic recovery.”

She said Indian leaders have released a vision document for economic partnership in July this year, outlining specific areas of cooperation for sustainable economic development and prosperity for our people.

“Our Government will work closely with the Sri Lankan Government in realising the vision provided by our leadership, thereby further deepening our civilisational ties with connectivity as a new focused area.

As we enhance connectivity between the two countries, we will build enduring bridges of experience and opportunities for our people. We will create a future with shared prosperity, overcoming the challenges of the past. I am sure the Indian origin Tamils will continue to play an important role in creating a shared future for our two countries. I want to thank the Government of Sri Lanka for organising this milestone event NAAM 200, to remember the contribution of the Indian origin Tamils. We as two countries will march together for a better future, that will fulfill the aspirations and expectations of a common people across segments and regions,” said Minister Sitharaman.

Prime Minister Dinesh Gunawardena, said: “Actually, 200 years is a very long time. The plantation community has earned a place in Sri Lankan history. They have made an impact on Sri Lankan history. Their tireless work has had an effect not only on their personal lives, but on the country and the friendship of Indo-Lanka.

They have made a real difference. There is no doubt that we are indebted to them. These workers have worked long and hard. They are an extraordinary people and their service to the county has earned them our respect. As the Government of Sri Lanka, their welfare is our priority.

Silent workers

We wish to give back to these silent workers, so that future generations will benefit. We will not forget the sacrifices these workers have made for the country. We feel honoured that Indian Finance Minister Sitharaman has graced this occasion.

Her arrival here is indeed timely as this event is directly connected with India. The plantation community’s story is not for the faint hearted. They have gone through a lot of hardship. Most people living in this country do not know this. Their journey has been one of travails. They have worked day in and day out so we can lead our lives of comfort.

If you take our livelihoods and the Sri Lankan economy, these plantation workers have been a pillar of strength. They have been a great source of strength for all of us. The Ceylon Workers’ Congress is a political party in Sri Lanka that has traditionally represented Tamils working in the plantation sector of the economy.

They have provided leadership for the plantation community. Here I wish to mention the admirable efforts of Minister Jeevan Thondaman who has fought for the rights of this community. He has been a livewire for this cause. Collectively, I feel we are all nearing a period of victory. We have all worked hard and long in this regard. I know how far we have come and I know how we have struggled to make a difference in this country.

We are bringing about a better quality of life for all Sri Lankans and we need to create a better Sri Lanka. I think now we have to unite as one people. We must commit ourselves to achieving many more victories. We must take care of these plantation workers and their children. They deserve their rights and we must train them to be global citizens. Their education is important.”

Minister Jeevan Thondaman said: “The reason we are having this event today is to give due recognition to this community that has been neglected. This is something we must accept. If you step out of Sri Lanka and say ‘Tamil’ people only think about the war.

They do not think about these workers who have plucked tea and saved the economy again and again over the past 200 years. This is something that must be recognised and taken into account. It was under the leadership of current President Ranil Wickremesinghe, then Prime Minister, that this section of the population was given citizenship. It took us almost 60 years to receive complete civic rights.

Right now we are in an economic crisis. We have come out of it, we are recovering and we are growing. But we cannot achieve economic progress without social progress. As far as social progress is concerned, this is the time.”

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