By Frances Bulathsinghala/South Asian Monitor
In July 2018, Sri Lanka will mark the 151 th. year of the tea industry in the country. It was a century and a half ago that the British pioneer, James Taylor, introduced tea after coffee had failed due to a leaf disease. Tea was first planted in 1867 in the Loolkandura plantation in Kandy in the central highlands with saplings brought from Assam in India.
The story of Lankan tea is a story of people. Its unsung heroes are Sri Lanka’s Indian origin plantation workers.These men and women were transported by ship to the North Western sea port of Talaimannar between 1830-1880. From there they made their way on foot through thick jungles, to the diverse British-owned newly cleared tea planting locations in the country, such as Kandy, Nuwara Eliya and Talawakelle, to name a few.
Not all made it to the plantations though. Many died on the way, due to malaria and other infectious diseases.
Today, all Indian origin plantation workers have been given Sri Lankan citizenship, and are part and parcel of the island’s multi faceted social fabric.
Their history of association with the tea industry of Lanka is part of the island’s colonial legacy, both the bad and the good.
The British owned plantations were nationalized by the Sri Lankan government in the 1970s and then privatized in the 1990s after nationalization had proved to be ruinous. However, some of the colonial hangovers like bonded labor associated with plantation workers, still remain. With tea plucking almost entirely resting in the hands of women, its legacy is in large part, an issue of gender. It is an issue of the struggle of women.
In a series of articles and book reviews, the South Asian Monitor will look at the contemporary human landscape that surrounds the Lankan tea heritage as well as socio-political aspects of the industry.
Lankan tea is considered superior in taste and quality to competing Indian and Kenyan tea. However, it is currently affected by labor shortage and political tampering in policy issues that make or break the image of Lankan tea.
Their untold stories that float in a cup
Forty-year-old Rani makes her way briskly through the spread of tea shrubs. From a distance it looks as if she is walking on a lush green carpet. The light green leaves on the surface glisten under the morning sun. Rani both loves and dreads these fresh leaves. The leaves have given her a livelihood for years as well as her ancestors, but of late she has preferred working as a cook in an estate bungalow.
From the age of eighteen she had braved the weather and the wrath of blood sucking leeches but with approaching age she prefers the comfort of a bungalow, sheltered from the elements.
Rani can barely write her name. Among plantation workers, schooling, whether for boys or girls, was not seen as a practical necessity fifty years ago, she points out, explaining her early exit from school, at age eight.
Estate schools were few and they mostly lacked adequate facilities to encourage education. Things are changing, she admits, although the change is not rapid enough. There is still a significant dearth of well equipped schools in the plantation areas.
Her two children are currently at school, sitting for their Ordinary Levels and Advanced Levels. Her hopes for them soar.
“I want them to become somebody important. An engineer or doctor or teacher,” she says with a smile.
“When I was young it was different. We had to walk so long to reach the nearest school. Today we can afford, even if we have to struggle for it, to send our children to the town-based government run schools in auto rickshaws run by estate youth. Going to school in my time was seen as a waste of money. School uniforms, shoes, books and pens our parents could not afford,” she recalls.
Her husband has for over twenty years been working in Colombo as a shop assistant and this has significantly added to the family income. Her job in an estate bungalow as a maid and cook supplemented the family income.
“My job as a maid is temporary. I have to leave when they tell me to and then if I do not find a similar job I have to go back to the tea bushes. As a maid I earn at least 20,000 rupees a month (150 USD) and the work is easy. Food that is left over I can freely take for my family. When I pluck tea it is different. I earn maximum Rs. 700 a day (Around 5 USD). Every morning I have to worry about insect and leech bites and the extreme cold. And we do not have work everyday,” she explains.
Not satisfied with that emphasis alone, she explains that she does not live in the ‘crowded line rooms.’Rani points to a small house that is barely visible in the vast landscape of tea and says proudly that it is her “house.” She emphasizes the word “house”.
Line-rooms, which are rows of small houses with the barest of facilities, were what the estate workers lived in for years until about twenty-five years ago when small changes were made after the realization by plantation owners that to keep these workers anymore in slave-like conditions would mean the ruin of the industry.
The progress is not sufficient, many would argue. Worker-Master relations are still somewhat akin to the ones in British times ,virtual bonded labor.
But as Rani points out, unlike in the past, the chances life has accorded her children are many. The dangerous thing for the tea industry is that none of the hopes of the younger generation revolve around it.
The morning I meet her, in the vicinity of one of the well known private plantations in Talawakelle, Rani is heading to the small Catholic church located at the periphery of the plantation. The church is solely meant for Christian plantation workers. Her daughter will be doing the Church reading in the English language during the Mass she says proudly, informing that it is the special ‘School English Mass’ for the year 2018.
The English Mass is a special highlight for all the school going Catholic children of estate laborers. While a majority of the estate workers are Hindu, there is a significant section of Catholics and other Christians.
At the special school English Mass, toddlers as young as three and youth in their late teens are seen in their best clothes. One young man carefully adjusts his socks to hide a tear in it. That done, he makes his way confidently to where the choir is practicing the singing of hymns in English.
During the Mass, the young Tamil priest is vociferous in emphasizing the importance of learning the international language, English. His sermon is similar to an impassioned social reform lecture. He is determined to see that the estate children are empowered and go forth to the world to take up socially mobile positions.
Having grown up witnessing the impoverished conditions in the line-rooms, the priest cares little to discuss the fate of Sri Lanka’s tea industry which is already facing a shortage of labor.
“Who will pluck tea in the next generations is not my business. All I know is that morning till night I endeavor to see that these children have a better future and will not be held captive in an industry that cares little for them,” he states, showing the small library with English and Tamil books he has created in the church premises.
Each Sunday, after mass and during Sunday school, all children have to read English books compulsorily.
His facial expression and tone is that of a person who has himself faced and risen above many challenges. But he changes the subject from his own life to the lives that he wants to uplift.
The two young nuns in the adjoining small convent, located in the estate take their roles as educators of these children seriously. The children go to a nearby estate school but as the facilities there are not on par with larger town-based schools, the nuns provide the children with extra coaching on subjects such as Science, Maths and English.
“Did you hear how well they did the English readings during mass?,” asks one nun. She has the tone of a parent fishing for compliments on the skills of their offspring. She is interrupted by a young volunteer teacher who breaks the news that two teenagers of the parish had been selected as winners at a district level sports event. The nun beams.
Meanwhile, elsewhere, in a tea estate in the Galaha area of Kandy district, the owner of a tea estate worries that many of his workers are above fifty years of age and that it is impossible to get any school leaver, men or women, to pluck tea. “Who will pluck tea after another ten years,” he laments.
His daughter who is now about to take charge of the estate, has plans to ‘make drastic changes,’ that includes a strategy of merging tea plucking with other factory tasks that require skills such as mathematics, raise the salaries and provide facilities such as footwear.
But he fears that the resultant costs would eat into the tea industry already facing diverse challenges. Nevertheless he hopes that the changes will help make the industry more attractive to the younger generation.
Whether those in the industry wish it or not, change is occurring, though slowly. As to how it will impact the island’s economic mainstay is a difficult question to answer.
There are those who have crossed the border of plantation workers to being plantation owners In Matale, the district that is adjacent to Kandy, thirty-five-year -old Rathnaveli owns one acre of tea. She emphasizes the word owns. She had purchased it five years ago at a low price after the large land her ancestors were working on was parceled and sold at concessionary rates to some workers who could afford it.
Members of Rathnaveli’s extended family work on the estate, determined to keep labor costs low. Having benefited from grants provided by the Tea Small Holders Authority that encourages small holders to make their plantations profitable, Rathnaveli, who had earlier worked as a teacher in a nearby school, is determined to ensure that an industry which reeked of bondage, becomes a liberator.
(Tea pluckers in Sri Lanka: Photo by Frances Bulathsinghala)