A timely move | Daily News

A timely move

The decision taken by the Government to provide a special allowance to estate workers under World Food Programme (WFP) and World Bank assistance could not have come at a more appropriate time given the desperate situation to which these poor souls have been thrown into, finding it difficult to keep body and soul intact as a result the astronomical increase in the prices of basic essentials such as wheat flour, bread and Kerosene.

According to Labour and Foreign Employment Minister Manusha Nanayakkara, the programme will also be extended to families living in tenement gardens in the City who too are vulnerable to the soaring prices of essential items.

It is being reported that most families among the plantation community are skipping regular meals, with some even making do with a single meal a day. This is to be expected given that the take home wage of an estate worker is around Rs. 800 per day after EPF and Trade Union contribution deductions are made to the Rs. 1,000 daily flat wage rate.

Estate worker families are large ones with many mouths to feed. It is left to one’s imagination to conceive how, with bread, the community’s staple diet now at nearly Rs.200 a loaf, an entire family could be fed for even a single meal.

With a litre of Kerosene - also a basic requirement in the estates - now priced at Rs. 340, a huge jump from the Rs. 87 it was two months ago - it is indeed difficult to fathom how these folk can survive at all on a daily income of Rs. 800.

No wonder that rampant malnutrition is being reported among children in the estates and elsewhere too which the UNICEF has taken cognizance of, and has promised assistance although the malnutrition figures are being disputed by Health Ministry officials.

Estate dwellers no doubt are driven to desperation and if an immediate solution is not found the situation could lead to social unrest of frightening proportions. With, on average, a little under a dozen children to feed, they have to make do with just a single meal going by the calculations and this too only if the bread is consumed without any accompaniments - the Rs.800 simply vanishing into thin air after just one meal.

Hence, the Minister’s consideration for the plantation community is a timely one and deserves praise although things will depend on the quantum of relief that will be offered. The Government must ensure that the relief quantum is based on the realities of estate life, for this community for long has been an oppressed lot, simply existing by the day with their humble earnings.

The astronomical rise in the prices of their basic needs have left them stranded and could well drive these folk to starvation, a phenomenon that could affect the productivity of the tea pluckers which in turn could affect tea exports and the economy at large.

In line with the proposed WFP assistance, the Government should also prevail upon the Plantation Management Companies (PMCs) to increase the daily wage of the estate workers by another Rs. 1,000, though even that will only be sufficient for them to barely survive.

True, the COVID-19 pandemic and the economic slump had dealt a body blow to all businesses and commercial ventures with tea exports too hitting the nadir. However, the PMCs have been resisting a pay hike even in better times and this indeed is an unfortunate development considering the contribution made to the national economy by the plantation community.

The Government therefore should take the initiative in finding alternate ways to improve the lot of the estate workers. They should be provided with decent housing and an opportunity for the education of their children without condemning them to be caught up in the vicious cycle of estate life.

The plantation community has been exploited since the day their ancestors set foot in this country. Earlier, it was the British and now it is the turn of the politicians exploiting the ignorance and the backwardness of this community to go places and feather their nests. Hence opportunities should be afforded by the national political leadership to break their shackles and venture out of their drudgery.

It is only through a sound education and opening the doors for new vistas that this could be achieved. The community should not forever be condemned to a life of exploitation and slavery. Their immense contribution to the economy does not deserve such shabby and miserly treatment.

The Minister also deserves praise for extending this special allowance to tenement housing families tucked away in the City sprawl. These tenement households too are experiencing poverty with their breadwinners doing menial jobs or living on the fringes of the law - all for the sake of survival.

The rising Cost of Living certainly has made their plight worse and in the battle for survival, they may even venture into a life of crime that would pose another headache to the authorities. Hence they deserve some form of assistance to tide over their difficulties.

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