Vested Interests Deprived Plantation Workers

By P. K. Balachandran

Right from the beginning of the plantation economy in Sri Lanka, vested interests had kept the plantation workers economically, socially and educationally backward.

The need of British planters to have large numbers of cheap and docile labourers resulted in workers being denied an education even though the rest of Sri Lanka, or Ceylon as it was called, was advancing educationally. In his book Confrontations with colonialism -1796-1920 P. V. J. Jayasekera says that, initially, in the first half of the 19th Century, the British coffee planters used Sinhalese villagers to work on their plantations. But given the low wages, the Sinhalese soon opted out, forcing the planters to look for cheap labour in the poverty-stricken and famine- affected districts of Tamil Nadu across the Palk Strait. The poor from Tamil Nadu were willing to work for any wage, anywhere in the world, only to keep body and soul together. 

Once the labourers were imported, they had to be kept in backwardness so that they had no option but to work at low wages with minimum facilities. Towards this end, education was deliberately denied them.  

In her paper, Progress among the Indian Tamil Minority in the Plantations of Sri Lanka, Angela W. Little says that in the first half of the 19th century when coffee was the main commercial crop, the requirement for labour was seasonal. The Indian migrant workers were all male with no families. So, there was no need to open schools. But when coffee gave way to tea there was a need for a permanently resident labour force because the work was not seasonal. The switch to tea brought in families with their children. And the planters had to give some education to the workers’ children. 

Religious education

But the education given was not meant to advance the workers’ social or economic status but to give them values suited to the planters. In collaboration with Christian missionaries the planters saw to it that the education given was purely religious not secular. According to Jayasekera, the curriculum comprised only Christian catechism in Tamil. Angela Little adds that the Kanganis or labour contractors also set up schools, but here again, the curriculum was entirely religious and it was Hinduism. The Kanganis’ idea was to conserve the existing values of the labour community based on Hinduistic fatalism and the caste hierarchy. 

To the dismay of Christian missionaries, the British planters also began to promote Hindu religious instruction in preference to Christian instruction because Hinduism helped the higher Kanganis lord over their low caste recruits. Planters helped build Hindu kovils, and participated in their ceremonies, Jayasekera points out. 

In 1903 the lack of educational facilities in the plantations became the subject of a political debate in the British parliament. Despite the profits from tea and the offer from the colonial Government of grants-in- aid for education, planters were reluctant to promote secular education among the workers. Pressed by the planters, the 1907 Rural Schools Ordinance had separate and less restrictive clauses pertaining to Estate education. However, successive ordinances in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s resulted in the number of “officially recognised schools” in the plantations growing from 43 in 1904 to 968 in 1948, Angela Little says.

Franchise issue

In the early 1930s, when franchise was given to Sri Lankans, nationalists opposed its extension to the Indian plantation workers on the grounds that they were not permanent residents of the island with a permanent interest in the welfare of the country. However, despite some restrictions on the numbers allowed to vote, plantation Tamils proved a significant constituency in the first Election after independence, sending seven members to Parliament. 

But this rang alarm bells in the dominant Sri Lankan political community and many plantation workers were denied citizenship under the Citizenship Acts of 1948 and 1949. The percentage of Indian Tamils in the total population declined from 11.7 per cent in 1946 to 9.4 per cent in 1971 and 5.6 per cent by 1981 partly due to repatriation to India under pacts with India in 1954 and 1964. 

But lakhs of workers who were due to be repatriated to India were not repatriated because of differences between the Governments of Sri Lanka and India on the principles of repatriation. The resultant uncertainty affected school going in the plantations. The period 1946 to 1981 was a period of decline in Estate education.

“The Free Education Act of 1945, which had carried enormous significance for the enfranchised masses of the Sinhalese and also the Sri Lankan Tamil community, had less impact on the plantation Tamil community. Although the 1947 ordinance had prescribed that the State would be responsible for establishing new schools in the plantations, there is no evidence of the State establishing any new schools on the estates under the provisions of this ordinance. Between 1948 and 1951 a large number of schools were closed down or amalgamated, and 24 were taken over between 1948 and 1955,” Angela Little says.

Language issue 

Then there was the language issue – whether the medium of instruction in the plantation schools should be Tamil or Sinhala. According to Little, the Sinhalese who supported integration of the general and plantation schools, recommended that Sinhala be taught as a compulsory language, or that rural Sinhala and plantation Tamil children be taught together in the same school, with Sinhala as the medium of instruction. The plantation Tamil leaders were keen on the integration of their schools into a national mainstream but they wished the schools to be maintained as separate institutions or streams, in which children learned through the medium of Tamil. This position prevailed eventually. The plantation schools thus lost a chance to benefit from the progress that the educational system was making in the rest of Sri Lanka. 

Other factors

The declining terms of trade for Sri Lankan plantation crops in the world market, the nationalisation of plantations by the leftist Government of Sirima Bandaranaike, and the disenfranchisement of a substantial section of the labour, led to the planters losing interest in Estate education. 

The Sirima Bandaranaike Government took over schools as part of its leftist ideology, though the takeover of plantation schools was not a priority. With the Government poised to take over plantation schools, the planters lost interest in the schools they were running. The problem was accentuated by the decline of the plantation sector following the nationalisation of plantations by Sirima’s Government.

Grant of Citizenship and Franchise 

Thanks to the combined efforts of the Ceylon Workers Congress led by S. Thondaman and the leaders of the SLFP and the UNP, all plantation workers were eventually given Sri Lankan citizenship. This made a big difference to the plantation workers and the education of their children. Thondaman had been able to get citizenship for his people by cooperating with successive Governments, and more importantly, by keeping the plantation workers away from the violent separatist movement launched by the North and East Tamils.

Commenting on the effect of the grant of citizenship on education, Angela Little says: “Many families could now look forward to a future as citizens of Sri Lanka. A growing number of young people were gaining jobs through education. These young people provided role models for estate parents and their children.”

The political rehabilitation of the Estate workers by the grant of citizenship to all, also resulted in an increase in their bargaining power vis-à-vis the Government and the major political parties. The latter, in turn, is having a favorable effect on their educational development. 

The availability of foreign funds for development has supported the building and rehabilitation of Estate schools. India is helping to rebuild nine schools. 

Long way still to go 

But education in the Estate sector still has a long way to go. While enrolment in the primary classes in the Estate sector matches those in the Sri Lankan Urban and Rural sectors, there is a huge gap at Ordinary and Advanced levels. In 2009-2010, enrolment at the O level in urban areas was 92.3 per cent and at the A level 45.8 per cent. In the Rural areas, it was 81.4 per cent and 39.7 per cent respectively. 

But in the Estate sector it was 53.8 per cent at the O level and 12.8 per cent at the A level. There is thus a yawning gap between the Estate sector and the rest of Sri Lanka at the O and A Levels.