Sunday, 30 January 2011

Blogging from Sri Lanka

I went to a tea plantation yesterday. It was both stunningly beautiful but full of reminders of how much some people in Sri Lanka have yet to go to catch up with the rest of the world.

In the war that ripped this island apart, over nearly three decades, much was made of the ethnic dimension of the war. It was, after all, the Tamil Tigers fighting the by and large Sinhalese Government. But Sri Lanka is an island more complex than this simple narrative suggests, as the people of the tea plantation proved.

On the approach to this plantation, through winding valleys bedecked with lines of tea leaf producing hedgerows, the first thing you notice are women with impossibly sized cloth bags hung from their foreheads across their back, plucking the buds and leaves. It is backbreaking work for which the workers are paid just enough to subsist.

Their problems only begin there. For their accomodation (above) is tied to their labour - withdraw that and they become instantly homeless. Given their lack of education beyond the rudimentary basics they stand no realistic chance of securing alternative employment - and so they stay. They stay to live in what are called "linehouses" - as you can see literally a line of concrete stables with one room. Consider that in this part of the world families from multiple generations live together and you start to get the picture. Bear in mind there is no internal toilet but a shared outside privvy and you begin to realise these people are living in conditions that we now study in history books. It is like going back to the Victorian age, which is apt because that is when they were built.

I asked some of the young people what they wanted to be. Not one of them answered tea-picker, but offered a range of professions which they dreamt of joining - doctors, teachers and businessmen all.

Ambition is admirable but consider that these people, the so-called "hill Tamils" who were literally imported here from India by the British, were only granted full Sri Lankan citizenship a matter of years ago and you begin to realise how vast the gulf between their ambitions and likely fate really is.

These people speak Tamil, but they are not Tamil in the sense that they either live with the majority Tamil community nor were they any part whatsoever of the uprising that turned into the Tamil Tigers. All of that passed them by. As did the centuries of development and growth that shaped our own worlds and outlook.

Consider that when you next pour some tea - and spare these people a thought. If the post war Sri Lanka is to develop as a unified nation and realise its obvious potential to become what the President himself has declared the "wonder of Asia"  - more than possible given its extraordinary beauty and people - then everyone has to have a stake. For the hill Tamils there is an awful lot of ground to make up.

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