A Tamil Nadu government order issued in October this year to hand back tea plantation land to the Forest Department has caused anxiety and concern among plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka. The leaders of the Ceylon Workers’ Congress (CWC), who represent a majority of the plantation labourers in Sri Lanka, asserted that the land had been demarcated and used for tea plantations to rehabilitate repatriated workers from Sri Lanka.
The order, GO (Ms) No. 173, issued on October 3, 2022, by the Environment, Climate Change and Forests (FR.8) Department, states that “the Managing Director, Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Limited sent a cost cutting proposal… as the Corporation is facing severe financial crisis…. One of the main cost cutting measures proposed… is handing over some unmanageable, unproductive and wildlife interface areas of the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation Limited to the Forest department.”
The GO states that if land to the extent of 2,152 hectares is given back, it will reduce the lease/rent liability of the corporation by Rs.598 lakh annually. “The balance plantation area can be managed effectively with the existing permanent workers/contract workers,” it said, adding that the workers would be redeployed or covered under a voluntary retirement scheme.
The areas affected include Naduvattam, Valparai (with factory closure), Coonoor, Kothagiri, Pandiar, Cherangode, Nelliyalam, and Cherambady. Valparai has the largest estate in this group (1,069.308 hectares) while Nelliyalam is the smallest in extent (14.23 hectares).
This move does not present much of a choice to many workers because the GO makes it clear that the redeployment will be at a place far away from their current estate. For instance, the workers in Valparai will be relocated to Coonoor or Wayanad. The State government has accepted this proposal, says the GO signed by Supriya Sahu, Environment Secretary, who was in charge of the plantations earlier.
Asked about the government order, A. Raja, MP and DMK leader, confirmed to Frontline that it had been issued. “The clause guiding the lease of land stipulates that if no cultivation has been undertaken in a leased land for three years, it would be automatically given back to the department which parted with the land,” he said.
He criticised the All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam (AIADMK) government, which was in power for two terms of neglecting the plantations and running them to the ground.
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“There is a lot of work to do and we are beginning with a feasibility study on how to make Tantea profitable,” said the MP, who represents the Nilgiris, a major tea growing area in the State. He said no plantation Tamil would be evicted. “They will be given retirement benefits.”
Since the government has decided to implement the order, it appears that the plantation labourers in these estates might indeed be displaced yet again. Down the ages, the families of these persons have suffered at least three major relocations—when they were taken to Sri Lanka as indentured labour in the last century and earlier, when the British ruled India; when they were sent back to India as part of a deal between India and Sri Lanka; and now, after the estates are closed.
Leaders of the CWC said that since the repatriation was a deal between two countries and made via two bilateral agreements—the Shastri-Sirimavo pact and the Indira-Sirimavo pact—tea estate land marked for the rehabilitation of plantation labourers cannot be rescinded.
Both accords specified the number of people that India would “take back” from the plantation areas of Sri Lanka. Soon after Sri Lanka gained independence in 1948, it refused citizenship rights for plantation Tamils and demanded that India take back over five lakh such labourers, almost all of them Tamils.
The “Agreement on Persons of Indian Origin in Ceylon”, which was signed in October 1964, was criticised then by Tamil leaders in Sri Lanka, including S.J.V. Chelvanayakam. The Indira-Sirimavo pact, signed in June 1974, was a follow-up to the Shastri-Sirimavo pact (1964).
By the early 1980s, only less than half of those intended for repatriation actually made the journey back. Many faced a lot of trouble (see “Letchumanan’s story”, Frontline, January 3, 2020).The plantation labourers in the tea estates that the Tamil Nadu government intends to shut down are repatriates from Sri Lanka.
The government-owned plantations in Tamil Nadu, belonging to the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation (TANTEA), were set up to give employment to the repatriated plantation Tamils. Though not all of them were accommodated in these plantations, those who were sent there were also given homes near the plantations, which too they will lose now.
Senthil Thondaman writes to Stalin
CWC president Senthil Thondaman told Frontline that he had written to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, requesting him to reconsider the decision. The CWC told Stalin that if TANTEA was not in a position to continue, then the workers themselves could run and manage the estate. The CWC also made representations to Sri Lankan Foreign Minister Ali Sabri and the Indian High Commissioner to Sri Lanka.
“Now the workers have been told to leave the houses [in the estates] because these lands have been given back to the forest [department]. They have no place to go…. If they have to come back, they have to come back to Sri Lanka because they have no other place to go,” he said, adding that in the present economic climate in Sri Lanka, it was unthinkable that anyone would want to start afresh decades after they had been “resettled”.
The CWC says that it has a moral responsibility towards the plantation labourers in Tamil Nadu because they were all once members of the CWC. When they were being repatriated, the CWC had given them the assurance that they would be looked after, based on the promises of the Indian government.
Said Senthil Thondaman: “We are also part of that commitment. The commitment was given by our late leader Savumiamoorthy Thondaman about 50 years ago. He is not there now, but the party exists. I am now the president of the party. I have a moral liability to make sure that his [Thondaman’s] assurances given to the people are still being honoured.”
Struggle for rights in Lanka too
The image of the Indian government in Sri Lanka is that of a benevolent government that has looked after both the refugees from Sri Lanka’s once-war-torn North and those who were repatriated. Both the northern Tamils and the plantation Tamils look to India for moral support during times of crisis.
Sri Lankan Tamils are distinct from plantation Tamils, although both speak the same language. The problems that both groups face are different too. The Indian intervention in the Tamil conflict resulted in the 13th Amendment to the Sri Lankan Constitution, and this unimplemented provision remains the only attempt at a political solution to the Tamil question. As for plantation Tamils, many accepted the repatriation offer in the hope of a better life in India.
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The CWC’s immediate concern is that if the Tamils in plantations in Tamil Nadu are not treated well, there would be questions on whether the plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka would fare any better. “We are already struggling for our rights in Sri Lanka for a long time. So, there will be a question here: ‘When you are being chased out from Tamil Nadu, why are you asking for rights in Sri Lanka?’ It will have a complication, not today but in the coming days,” Senthil Thondaman said.
The CWC facilitated the distribution of goods that India recently sent for people in Sri Lanka, though this was a logistical nightmare. Members of the CWC also help with the release of Indian fishermen held for fishing in Sri Lankan waters. “We take a personal interest in trying to get them [fishermen] released,” he said, and added that both the Indian and Tamil Nadu governments should help the plantation labourers from being displaced again.
- A Tamil Nadu government order issued in October this year to hand back tea plantation land to the Forest Department has caused anxiety and concern among plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka.
- The GO states that if land to the extent of 2,152 hectares is given back, it will reduce the lease/rent liability of the corporation by Rs.598 lakh annually.
- This move does not present much of a choice to many workers because the GO makes it clear that the redeployment will be at a place far away from their current estate.
- CWC president Senthil Thondaman told Frontline that he had written to Tamil Nadu Chief Minister M.K. Stalin, requesting him to reconsider the decision.
- The CWC’s immediate concern is that if the Tamils in plantations in Tamil Nadu are not treated well, there would be questions on whether the plantation Tamils in Sri Lanka would fare any better.