Empowering plantation community | Daily News

Empowering plantation community

President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has won for himself much public affection for personally looking into the problems and woes of the neglected and deprived communities in the far flung villages and providing instant solutions to them. Now he has taken up cudgels on behalf of the estate community in the wake of their demand for a Rs.1,000 wage hike still lying in abeyance. The President has urged the Plantation Management Companies to do their duty on behalf of the estate community complementing the Government’s own contribution to uplift and upgrade the living standards of the plantation workers.

No doubt the basis for this request by the President is the much delayed Rs. 1,000 wage hike which he pledged to obtain for the estate community during his Presidential Election campaign last year. It is hoped that the President’s overture in this regard would be responded to in a positive vein particularly considering the plight of the lot of this particular segment of our brethren whose contribution towards the country’s economy needs no elaboration.

The Management Companies, had, prior to this, turned down the request from the late minister Arumugam Thondaman for a Rs. 1,000 wage hike. They (Management Companies) also turned down a request by the Finance Ministry to grant interest free loans to the estate workers. The President’s intervention, one is inclined to expect, would elicit a favourable response. Of course, like all sectors of the economy the plantation economy too suffered a body blow from the Coronavirus. But this should not be made an excuse for stalling on the demand indefinitely.

In the past, in such instances, Savuryamoorthy Thondaman would have led a massive Satyagraha running into days to win over the demands of his community. It appears, though, the magic of the Thondaman name has lost its allure. The legendary political bargaining power of the Grand Old man of the Thottam is today conspicuous by its absence. It is yet too early to say if the latest in the line of Thondamans could restore the status quo.

There was a time when Thondaman Snr. wielded much clout with the Central Government and almost made it do his bidding towards the welfare of the plantation workers. This is why he had the pick of the Cabinet portfolios for himself under JRJ, Premadasa, D. B. Wijetunga and the Chandrika administrations.

However, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa has turned this equation on its head, obtaining his massive majority without the votes of all the minority parties put together. Hence, the plantation community, for the first time, can look forward to a leader, outside their own, who would look into their welfare.

It is only right that they (plantation community) be served well, given the contribution they make to the national economy. Let alone their wages, their living conditions are still in a primitive state, with large families huddled together in single room hovels that are called line rooms. Children in the plantations usually take after their parents and would not think of a world out of their limited existence. They hardly attend school and are struck by malnutrition.

It is therefore heartening to note the steps taken by President Rajapaksa to uplift the educational standards in the estates. At a meeting to discuss the future programmes of the Ministry of Estate Housing and Civic Infrastructure Facilities, the President disclosed that he had made arrangements to provide vocational training courses to the estate youth that would obtain for them the NVQ level certificate, valid for employment. This, hopefully, would redirect the focus of the estate youth from the drudgery of estate life to more productive pursuits that would keep them gainfully employed.

Basic infrastructure in the estates too should be improved and schools provided with facilities and the full quota of teachers.

There is no gainsaying the urgent need to deliver this community from their current existence and get them absorbed into the general society. They should be provided with the necessary facilities and the wherewithal to redeem themselves from their backwardness. The demand for a daily wage of Rs. 1,000 is not unfair by all accounts. Nay, it could be considered chickenfeed by living standards in the city. This could barely be sufficient for food alone, even in the estates, where the community is used to living a spartan existence. One must also not forget that there will be a large number of sole breadwinners with large families who will have to make do with this pittance.

Hence, the Government should intervene and strike a bargain with the management companies. The stock excuse by the Management Companies has always been that they could not afford high wages due to the slump in world tea prices. This excuse is often trotted out even when collective agreements come up for discussions. If things continue in the same vein then there will never be a wage hike in the foreseeable future which will place the estate workers in a severe plight. Hence the need for the powers that be to work out a formula where the plantation community will be able to at least secure a living wage to tide over their hardships.