Yataderiya Estate in the throes of poverty

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The people who live in the Yataderiya Tea Plantation in Uddugoda, Kegalle, managed by the Arpico Plantation, have lost their sense of purpose. They are the poorest of the poor, living in deplorable conditions. Yet, this community is one among many in Sri Lanka.

Yataderiya was discovered in 1905 by the British and it is just 93km away from Colombo. Some of the estate workers already know that this estate is neglected, housing some 48 families of Indian origin, with tin roofs that haven’t been changed in over 50 years or so.

When former President Ranasinghe Premadasa handed over the plantation to regional plantation companies (RPC) on 23 July 1992, it meant that the community living in those 400 or so tea estates, numbering over 300,000 people at the time, were also ‘transferred’ to estate management. However, as there is a massive drop of workers, the RPCs have consistently claimed that only those who work for estate management should be cared for, while the rest should be cared for by someone else.

When Premadasa handed over the plantation to the RPCs, there were around 300,000 workers and in 2022 there are little over 100,000 workers directly employed, with hardly any labour left, due to the present political and wage mayhem.

Most of the workers don’t want to be employed mainly because of the petty payment scheme, with loads of deductions marked in their payslip.

Today, only 25 per cent are working for the estate sector, others have left. However, ironically tea is the top foreign exchange earner.

This has led to this particular community in Yataderiya Estate living under severe poverty and poor conditions. They are merely sandwiched between the Government and RPCs, not receiving any incentives or aid from both sides. This is one of those neglected by the State and RPCs and having no one to turn to.

A large number of people in this estate are unemployed, and their children are malnourished,with liver problems, poor vision, and being underweight.

At the entrance to Yataderiya Estate, there is a lovely concreted tea cup with two leaves protruding on both sides. The estate appears to be lush until you reach the interior and discover a community hidden among the thick trees covered and not visible to the outsiders.

A mother of two boys aged one and a half and five, worked as a tea plucker. She was granted maternity leave for her second son, but he was underweight and vitamin deficient. The doctor had advised her not to work for at least seven months and to breastfeed the baby. When her maternity leave ended, she received a call from the plantation company. When she presented the doctor’s leave letter, they refused to accept it, and her name was removed from the roster. She barely received her full pay while working at the estate.

“I was paid around Rs 7,000 per month, sometimes worse, but on some other months about Rs 12,000 to Rs 14,000.They cut my pay when I was late for work. When the weather is wet, they deduct two kilos of tea leaf, claiming that the weight is due to wet leaves, and pay for the remaining kgs. Despite bringing 20 kgs of tea, they cut due to low attendance.” Her husband and her are both unemployed. She was given a plot of land next to the line room while working at the estate.

They have warned her not to build a cement house and instead to live in a mud house. There isn’t adequate roofing. The entire shed, much like a house, leaks. They are not permitted to plant or cultivate anything on the estate-provided land. She and her ailing parents, underweight two sons, and unemployed husband face untold hardships. The doctor’s prescription for vitamins is Rs 7,000 a month and she gave a copy of the prescription to the writer.

Her husband is a labourer who works outside the plantation. He asked the Yataderiya Estate to hire him, but they refused. He also claims that there isn’t much work. Estate management may ask him to work for three days and then not show up.The entire community claims those who work at the plantation, earn less than Rs 1,000 per month.

Another family of six lives in a 200-year-old line of rooms in which no repairs have been done. The father of the four small children is unemployed. He looks after the children while his wife works as a labourer outside the plantation. They are housed in a single 10×10 square foot line room, and the roof leaks. The schoolbooks of the children were wet, so were their beddings. “We can’t afford to buy a tin roof for Rs 800 per piece, and there’s barely enough food for us. We have a son who has liver disease and has had major surgery, but his diet is terrible.”The man enters the thickets in search of edible greens, which he cooks and serves to the children with plain rice.

One of the family’s parents and grandparents are unemployed, leaving the children with little food and this family is among those who have not seen hope to date.

According to the world-renowned Computer and Enterprise Investigations Conference (CEIC), as Sri Lanka’s population reached 22.16 million in 2021, the country’s unemployment rate fell to 4.30 percent in March 2022, from 4.60 percent in December 2021. According to the data, it reached an all-time high of 5.80 per cent in September 2020 and a record low of 3.90 percent in December 2012.

What happened to the Plantation Human Development Trust?

One of the main reasons for estates being neglected is because the Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT) is now under the Ministry of Housing,but it was initially under the Ministry of Plantation Industries.

According to Director General of PHDT, Lal Perera, he is unhappy that the Housing Ministry has taken over the PHDT that was under the Ministry of Plantation Industries.

“It was just a month ago the PHDT was transferred and there is no funding at the moment,” he said.

Perera said almost 70 per cent of workers dropped serving the plantation and that he is helpless. He has been coordinating with many RPCs to assist the plantation community in the past and now he can do the same, however, the funding is not there, he added.

When Ceylon Today explained the living condition of the Yataderiya Estate, he said he would visit that place personally to see the condition of the people.

Reportedly, the World Bank provided funding to renovate Child Development Centres. Also, the PHDT is presently encouraging home gardening. However, many of the plantation companies are strict that their workers don’t do home gardening in the plot of land given by the estate management. 

Recently, one of the Estate Managers in the Kegalle District had destroyed the home gardening that was done by an unemployed family, citing that he has no right to do so when he is not employed with them.

Director General Perera said, unless the Cabinet approves funds, they cannot do anything. However, as the PHDT is now under the Ministry of Housing, there is hardly any hope that the plantation community will gain from the PHDT. PHDT under the Ministry of Housing is mainly looking into the needs of housing and water, sanitary facilities, and home gardening for others and not for the plantation sector.

The PHDT was established on 18 September 1992 as the Plantation Housing & Social Welfare Trust (PHSWT) and incorporated in Sri Lanka under the Companies Act No. 17of 1982. The organisation was later renamed as the PHDT on 10 October 2002.

The DG of the PHDT was conducting monthly and quarterly meetings with the Executives and Regional Directors and also the Management staff to review progress and plan for the future. He was also visiting the regions on a regular basis and participating in programmes, visiting estates and projects with the Regional Directors and staff guiding, supervising and monitoring the teams. But would he be entitled to do such work that he undertook in the past?

Plantation trade unions take no action

This estate’s residents are divided among several trade unions. Politically, each one supports one of the CWC’s trade unions, Vadivel Suresh, Radhakrishnan, or Palani  Digambaram. Some of them pay the
Rs 130 monthly trade union membership fee. The community claims that they will only appear during the elections to promote their candidates. They would also appear at funerals. They don’t recognise those who are unemployed and have no income. They also do not intervene in speaking on their behalf in situations where basic human rights are violated on a daily basis.

The present crisis is mainly due to unemployment, neglected by the country’s authorities, who only speak of tea, rubber, and coconut as forex earners, but have not realised the danger that has been looming.

In Sri Lanka, workers’ remittances from January to June 2022 have plunged to USD 274.3 million from USD 478.4 million in the same period of 2021. The total departures for jobs in the five months of 2022 were 113,757. It is disturbing, as more people have taken up overseas jobs and are not sending money.

Presently, there is a significant exodus of estate workers to the Middle East, as the currency has devalued and they can earn over Rs 70,000 a month overseas. While the Government claims that the economy has crashed, no officials are encouraging workers to stay. They will not stay either, as plantation workers are exploited,and the RPCs claim that it is the Government’s responsibility to intervene on behalf of the estate’s unemployed workers, and they cannot offer anything in lieu of work.

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Text and photos by Sulochana Ramiah Mohan