Fighting landlessness in upcountry region

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Since the British left Sri Lanka and the Regional Plantation Companies (RPCs) took over the tea and rubber plantations in 1992, the employees who lived on those estates have been denied land ownership and have lived as address-less individuals despite being granted citizenship.

It does not imply that they are all Tamils of Indian ancestry, as many Sinhalese and Muslims reside in estates like as Deniyaya, Badulla, Matale, Maskeliya, and others who are landless and address-less.

The entire estate land is owned by the RPCs, who have been paying land taxes to the government since taking possession.

Despite living for decades, plantation workers and non-plantation workers cannot own a house or the land on which it is built. This is a basic human right that certain sections of Sri Lankan society do not have. During elections, the people are enticed to vote, but no consecutive governments have considered giving them the right to the land on which they live.

There are 453 planation estates in the country and their inhabitants never had a home address of their own.

The RPCs pay the taxes for the estates hence the workers have been address-less for over fifty years.

National Land Day was earmarked on 21 June 2022 and was declared to ensure the rights of landless people in Sri Lanka by the Movement for Plantation Peoples’ Land Rights (MPPLR).

Convener of MPPLR T. Ganeshalingam told Ceylon Today that the politically motivated, discriminatory policy decisions adopted by successive governments have led to the marginalisation of Hill Country Tamils and others.

The number of landless people in ethnically diverse Sri Lanka is significantly high. The Hill Country Tamils have been living as a landless community for more than twenty decades. Their voice for land rights and the need to ensure their rights for life and livelihood should be declared as an important narrative in mainstream political agendas of the country. Their right to citizenship, to vote, to land, education, language, government employment and access to government services are in jeopardy.

In 1935 when the Land Development Ordinance No. 19 of 1935 was introduced, leftist leader Dr. S. A. Wickremasinghe highlighted in his speech in the State Council the estate workers had been marginalized: ‘there are 600,000 (Indian Tamils) in the estates, but not one of them possesses an inch of land in this country. More than 300,000 workers have completely lost their Indian connection.

Structural marginalisation and discrimination of the Hill Country community by successive governments have rendered them devoid of any land rights, while several post-independence development programmes further deprived estate workers of their residential lands, leaving them even more destitute and/or displaced.

Land rights struggles

The first land rights struggle initiated by the hill country people was in Urulawalli estate, Kegalle from 21 June to 9 July 1946. It was a protest to safeguard their land rights after 400 acres of their residential lands from the estate was confiscated by the Government. More than 125,000 workers from Kegalle, Kelani Valley and Hatton participated in this protest under the leadership of the Ceylon Indian Congress – Labour Federation, demanding land rights for Indian origin Sri Lankan estate workers.

The Land Reforms Act of 1972 resulted in settlements in the estates and land acquisitions. On 11 May 1977, continued land acquisition culminated in a protest against the plans to seize 7,000 acres of land in Devon estate, where a young estate worker, Sivanu Letchumanan, was shot dead by the Police during the protest. Subsequently, the plan to confiscate estate lands was abandoned. Similarly, as a result of continuous protests against the Upper Kotmale Hydro Power Project in 2000, the plan to evict the people from the area was abandoned. Following the 2014 Meeriyabedda landslide disaster in Haputale, Badulla District, a clarion call was made in all parts of the country that the people living in the hill country should be given suitable lands, the MPPLR says.

The sacrifices made by the forefathers of the hill country people in their struggle for land rights and other rights are exemplary. Despite the many protests and activities to recognise and protect the right to land of the hill country people, their issues and violations remain unresolved. Thus, a need has arisen now that this demand be included in the national discourse of the country. The MPPLR has long demanded that a national day be declared to ensure the land rights of the hill country communities, and to mobilise all likeminded people to demand land for the landless. The MPPLR has worked with affected communities for the last eighteen years to address land issues. The movement proposes that 21 June, the anniversary of the Uruwalli protest, be declared as “Land Day”.

The MPPLR Convener explains further the movement has about 7,500 directly involved in campaigning for the land rights and there are migrant workers, domestic workers who are working in various parts of the country who don’t enjoy the land rights to even renovate their houses.

“They can live as long as they can but cannot own the house or the land and that’s a violation of human rights.”

He recalled that when Sajith Premadasa was Housing Minister under the UNP-SLFP,  he provided deeds for houses in the South for families without land. New houses were built and each of them received 20 perches in addition to the house. Another one to two acres of land was also donated for farming purposes. That is for paddy cultivation (marshy ground) and another acre for vegetable farming. This is how the deeds were issued, but this was not the situation in the plantation sector.

He noted that after many years of lobbying, successive governments promised deeds to plantation workers.

When the Indian housing project houses were distributed, a phony deed was distributed that could not be used anywhere. Not even to apply for a student loan. They were merely permits that could not be transferred or mortgaged. A surveyor should measure and demarcate the land if it is a deed. Such surveys are not carried out, and the deed only includes the name and location, which is not a legal deed, but people believe it is their land and house.

Ganeshalingam recalls in 1993 then Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe visited the Nuwara Eliya District with Senior S. Thondaman and distributed leaflets during election campaign and assured that land rights would be issued to the plantation workers. “Today he is once again the Prime Minister, for the sixth time, and we want to remind him of what he promised then,” he recalled.

In 1992 the RPCs paid the land tax for five years and that was revised in 1995 for a 50-year-lease. So the entire estate is taken on lease by the RPCs and they have the maintenance power hence the workers cannot claim land ownership.

“Although Upcountry Tamils and some Sinhala and Muslim families live there, they build their line rooms and mud houses with their own money, but they don’t own it. The RPCs can recover them and drive out the occupants. Similarly if they cultivate the yard outside their homes they can be asked to stop doing so”.

Some estate owners don’t confront the workers as they know it can turn violent. When their line rooms are renovated the estate managers watch but don’t take action because they worry about strikes and confrontations. But that is not the way to sort out the land issue, notes Ganeshalingam.

Ganeshalingam explains how the Pathana Queensbury Estate was issued land deeds but were unauthorised and not authentic. “When you go to the Divisional Secretary of the Pradeshiya Sabha to claim any government benefits, such forms have three categories of inhabitants. Do you live in the city, village, or estate, mentioned in the form. When the residents mark they live in an estate, they are told to go to the RPCs and claim whatever they want and others are taken care of by the Divisional Secretary.

It’s astonishing to think that people donate large sums of money to rebuild Hindu temples in estates that do not belong to them. Well-wishers may spend millions of rupees to refurbish and expand temples, but the RPCs own these temples”.

Besides the RPCs, which own over 453 estates (with several upper and lower divisions), there are several government-owned plantations, including the Janata Estate Development Board (JEDB), which owns 16 estates, the Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation (SLSPC), which owns 16 estates, and Elkaduwa Plantation, which owns around 20 estates.

“These State-owned plantations have also not provided land rights to the residents of such estates. You can’t expect much from the RPCs if the government-owned estates don’t care about people’s land rights.”

People in the upcountry, like the rest of the country, require the right to use the land for productivity and living purposes, just as the rest of the country.

The RPCs, according to MPPLR, have halted the benefit scheme for numerous estates. They make minor modifications, but the basic living conditions of the estate workers remain as poor and pitiful as they have always been. The RPCs have been less focused on the welfare of the upcountry people since the introduction of the Rs 1,000-a-day salary. The line rooms are not repaired and hardly any renovations are carried out by the RPCs. They supply medicines for the estate dispensaries and maintain them.

As a result, the Upcountry Tamils receive no local government subsidies and have lost the focus of the RPCs, despite being the backbone of the country’s tea export.

Why is there such discrimination? “The people and the Government continue to believe that Upcountry Tamils are migrant labourers from Tamil Nadu. Because the Tamil migrant narrative is deeply ingrained, they believe they should not be granted the privilege to possess a plot of property. Having confronted the ethnic issue, which was mostly about land rights, the majority believes that the Tamils of the Upcountry want their part as well,” Ganeshalingam explained. But people have been very progressive in their thinking. Many political parties including the Samagi Jana Balawegaya, Janata Vimukthi Peramuna, the civil society, the Tamil political parties such as TPA, all Trade Unions and Ceylon Workers Congress are jointly fighting for the rights of the upcountry people. They can see the issue and the discrimination vividly.

Key Demands by the MPPLR

➢ Ensure land rights of all landless communities in Sri Lanka.

➢ Distribute suitable lands with legal entitlement to build adequate housing with facilities, in order to ensure a dignified life for the Hill Country people.

➢ Form a smallholder entrepreneur structure to promote and secure food sovereignty and livelihoods of the Hill Country people.

➢ Obtain lands to improve the livelihood of the Hill Country people with a focus on food security.

➢ Ensure land rights of the Hill Country people to improve their traditional, cultural, religious and infrastructure aspects.

➢ The areas where the estate communities reside to be separated from the plantation industry, declared as villages and brought under local governance of the local authorities. Ensure access to government services from the respective divisional secretariats.

➢ The Hill Country people should be given the right to protect the water bodies, forests and other resources found in their respective areas.

By Sulochana Ramiah Mohan