LG polls: little impact on tea estates? | Daily News

LG polls: little impact on tea estates?

Hands in gloves, she selectively plucked the tea leaves. She said her hands hurt when she plucked continuously. Vasantha Rani (48) who has worked as a tea plucker for the last 34 years, said she bought the gloves herself.

She does not believe in any false promises continuously given by the trade unions, estate management or politicians, her dream is to see her children be successful. “I only believe in hard work and my ability to make my dreams come true,” she said.

The politics of the hill country (Nuwara Eliya especially) is entangled with the lives of estate workers. Votes are gained through promises and the promises made have been the same for the estate workers who have seen very little progress in their day-to-day lives.

With the Local Government Elections coming closer, many around the country have asked that their local bodies be corruption free, have services delivered on time and be in tune with the needs of the people, but in the estate, very few are aware of what their rights or demands should be, having been denied even the most basic facilities for decades.

Denied basic facilities

Sri Lanka in general is not a friendly place for the differently abled but R. Jivajosi (61), who has a differently abled daughter who just turned 27, said her biggest wish was for a toilet for her daughter.

“Even I am sick. My son is the breadwinner. The only thing that I need is a toilet. My youngest daughter is differently abled,” she said.

She was determined to look after her daughter until her final breath.

“Till I die, I will not let anyone look after her. It is very hard to take her to the toilet. She hardly understands anything. I have to carry water buckets to the toilets and the toilet is 150 metres away from my house,” she added.

Vasantha Rani in the meantime complained that she received water only two hours a day, one hour in the morning and another hour in the evening.

not reaching estates

Given these issues, it is at the local government that solutions to many of their problems lay, but Jeganathan Yoganathan from Pedro Ward who is contesting in the upcoming elections said many people at times do not realize the importance of local government elections.

He said the number of school dropouts was also on the rise and added that some parents preferred to send their children to work in vegetable plantations rather than school. Yoganathan further observed that there was a new trend prevailing in the estates where youth easily got addicted to drugs. “As a consequence, the youth choose to work instead of pursuing education - to buy drugs.”

He however emphasized that basic facilities of the people need to be addressed.

“These people have health issues, there is no proper hospital or sanitary facilities, no housing facilities and the huge problem is garbage disposal,” he said.

But according to Yoganathan, there are legal restrictions which deny access to the local government authorities to fulfill their duties.

The Pradeshiya Sabha Act of 1987 was written to devolve more power to local governments. But estates and, by extension, estate workers were explicitly written out of the law. Even today many estate workers do not have even the most basic level of government accessible to them.

Nuwara Eliya, National Union of Workers (NUW) MP Mylvaganam Thilakarajah has made it his mission to amend Section 33 of the Act but to this day the estate exemption remains in place.

“Why are we always deprived of our basic rights?” asked Suppiah Rajasekaran (68), a teacher from Watagoda in Nuwara Eliya.

Pedro Estate Manager Anura Senanayake in the meantime said that already a large number of the estate workers, especially from the age group between 25-40 years, have started leaving the plantation industry and moving towards urban areas in search of better employment. R. Krishan (27) who currently works in a private firm in Nuwara Eliya said that he was working in Colombo for the past five years and moved to Nuwara Eliya recently. The youth, he said, have no support or future in the estate and there is no one to support them to even run their own vegetable plantations.

“There is no bigger difference between the people who live in the estates under the management and the others who own lands. The living standard is the same,” he claimed.

First awareness, then rights

Elizabeth Mary (48) is well aware that the elections are coming up soon, but she said that she has not decided whom she would vote for.

She loved talking about tea, but politics, she said, was a subject she was not interested in.

Mary knew of the good qualities of tea but not of the politicians. She further said that she was not aware what changes the upcoming elections would make in their lives.

“It has always been the same. I do not know what will happen,” she said.

In the meantime, Mary’s mother Sandana Paapu (73) does not work anymore. She said that she is sick and her daughter takes care of her.

She did know about politics and she was open about whom she was going to vote for in the election.

Although many people did not know the politicians, they were very well aware of the party that they are going to vote for.

The character or the service rendered by the person was not important, the party was more important, they said. In the meantime, Rajasekaran claimed that trade unions were very selfish - they will not let anything good happen for these people. “They are leading happy lives by pointing out the difficulties of this vulnerable group,” he said.

“The trade unions claim that they support estate workers, but that is not true. What have they done for the betterment of these people? NOTHING,” he said.

Rajasekaran argued that even though the politicians are willing to do something good for the people, they were unable to do anything because trade unions have had greater voice in decision making than the politicians in power.

“At the end, nobody does anything for the betterment of the people,” he said.

He said the pathetic situation is that the people do not know anything about this – they knew neither politics nor their rights.

According to Rajasekaran, the only way to bring about change in the lives of these people was to change their mindset and for that they needed to think beyond their estate managers and trade unions. 

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