Marking 200 years since their arrival in Sri Lanka from southern India, to work in the British-run plantations, members of the island nation’s historically marginalised Malaiyaha [hill country] Tamil community have sought greater recognition, political rights, and improved living and working conditions.
“Design, resource, and implement a 10-year development plan that is explicitly based on the principle of affirmative action in response to the decades of structural exclusion that has resulted in poor human development indices of Malaiyaha Tamil community when compared with all other communities,” a key demand read, in a declaration released after a recent three-day public event held in the central Nuwara Eliya city.
The development plan must aim to reduce poverty, provide land and housing, enhance public health and education access, while ensuring labour rights, including a fair living wage and legal protection, the declaration said. Further, it asked the Sri Lankan government to recognise the Malaiyaha Tamils as a community with “a distinct identity and as equal citizens”, and ensure appropriate political power sharing and proportional system of electoral arrangements.
Organised by the Institute of Social Development, an NGO working on addressing challenges facing the Malaiyaha Tamils, the event sought to highlight the centuries-long struggle of the much-neglected community, while demanding long-pending solutions to their enduring problems. From being deprived of their citizenship in 1948 — the struggle for citizenship continued until 2003 — to being subjected to discrimination and exploitation, Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaha Tamil community has been enduring incessant injustices.
Around 1.5 lakh people from the million-strong community currently work in tea and rubber estates, bringing in crucial foreign exchange to Sri Lanka. A majority works outside the plantation ecosystem, including as professionals across sectors.
The estate-bound families, living in the Central, Southern and Uva provinces, are among Sri Lanka’s poorest, with some still residing in colonial-era line rooms, without basic amenities. India committed financial assistance to build 14,000 houses in the estate areas, but the slow pace of the project has come under frequent criticism.
The financial crisis that shook Sri Lanka last year has further compounded Malaiyaha Tamils’ economic distress, pushing more than half the population living in estate areas into acute poverty, a recent World Bank report noted.
Along with Sri Lankan legislators, scholars, workers, artistes and activists from the Malaiyaha Tamil community, popular Tamil rapper Arivu, of ‘Enjoy Enjaami fame’ participated and performed at last weekend’s event.
In the declaration released, the community resolved to foster the linkages and solidarity between Malaiyaha Tamils living in different parts of Sri Lanka and those that have migrated to India.