Sri Lanka commemorates 156 years of tea: Transforming lives of plantation Tamils

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As the tea industry celebrates 156 years in Sri Lanka, each Sri Lankan has to be a contributor to the national consciousness to understand and reciprocate in whatever manner that we can, to the yeoman service that these Sri Lankans – the plantation Tamil community of Sri Lanka – is carrying out daily

By Surya Vishwa

In July Sri Lanka commemorates 156 years of tea, following the British colonial government initiating the tea plantation industry in this country. It is in this backdrop that we feature the following discourse.

Why is it that the youth in the tea plantation sector is not taking to tea-based innovation and entrepreneurship? By the term ‘youth in the plantation sector’ the reference is to children of parents who toil in the tea estates in all kinds of adverse weather, plucking tea, for less than Rs. 1,000 a day.

When I asked the above question from a close associate of those who fought for the rights of the Indian origin Tamils of the plantation workforce over five decades ago, at the time of forming a separate political representation for them, he replied to me with the following retort.

“The great great grandparents of these youth were brought as slaves to these plantations from India and made to walk without food for weeks to where they would labour, with the British men on horses whipping them on when they stalled or rested from exhaustion. The youth of today may not know exactly how torturous it was for their ancestors and for their grandparents who were merely considered slaves. The post independent scenario did not change much. Despite toiling in this land and bringing revenue to it, the plantation Tamils were declared as non-citizens through de-franchisement.”

As he spoke, he too being from the plantation region, and now 80 years of age, was overcome with emotion. Indeed one has to stop to think of the humanistic, ethical and karmic significance of such policies. A policy begins with an emotion and then materialises as a thought. A policy can spell out gratitude or ingratitude, wisdom or ignorance. Policies impact human beings and any negative impact on human beings impacts the economy – because the thriving of a nation hinges on happy and content citizens. A country pays its price for the wrong policies. Sri Lanka has paid the price in a civil war – in the North – the volcano that erupted in the mid-1980s after the conjoining of many policy related and non-policy related events.

In this article we are talking of the salubrious hill country with beautiful scenic tea estates where the volcano is in the daily grind and struggle of human beings who are the wheels of the around $ 1 billion worth export industry.

The war is internal

Here the war is internal – a matter of the heart and mind which affects the level of patriotism and loyalty the plantation community feels for this nation. Love for a nation cannot be forced – love and loyalty comes when the nation – through its policies – shows reason for a people to love the country they were born to or inhabit for a long term. A people who love their country will not flee in boats to foreign lands.

The young generation today who live in cramped and sometimes still unhygienic infrastructure based conditions as did their grandparents – in the plantation sector, with only marginal improvement in lifestyle, use education opportunities to somehow escape their circumstances. The dream of almost every plantation youth is to migrate as labourers to foreign countries but very few go as doctors, lawyers and engineers. The social mobility many reach are as teachers and also in technology – for example the entire staff including the principal of the Kotagala Tamil Maha Vidalaya are past pupils, some students specialising in Information Technology have migrated to the West. But many fall between the cracks of opportunity into underemployment or unemployment, if they remain in the country.

The estate schools in general, as in all other schools of this country do not prepare students for ideation and entrepreneurship creation. 

In this context the veteran plantation rights activist asked me in thinly concealed anger; “Do you think these youth will stick around tea plantations which they see as a prison of exploitation where workers are still struggling to get Rs. 1,000 a day? Do you think they will want to worry about inventing new ideas pertaining to tea?”

He then went on at length about how the nation should introspect about the basic ethic of the gross injustice done through de-franchisement which was rectified over two decades ago, by pointing out as follows;

“When the plantation youth hear how their parents were treated by the country they slaved for, when they know that their parents are not treated with the respect they deserve for shouldering the entire tea industry on their shoulders, how will they see tea as a potential elevator of their lives and thereby love it enough to innovate upon it through creativity in entrepreneurship?.”

Who will pluck tea in another 15 years?

The question to consider is – if the young people leave the plantations who will pluck tea in another 15 years, considering that almost all of the tea pluckers are above the age of 50. With tea plucking being a highly delicate task where till recently it was believed could not be replicated by machines, the gross lack of manpower is directing some tea companies to invest in machines. There are contraptions that can pluck about 25 kilos in an hour which surpasses the amount that can be plucked manually.

Many feel that machinising the industry is not the answer and that whatever the investment in replacing human effort, that the industry will collapse in about three decades, because holistic sustainability measures are not being envisaged.

The tea industry as a whole has huge scope for innovation even after existing for one and a half centuries in the country. This scope has to be considered and brainstormed at policy level. This innovation should trickle down to young people of the sector – the families who toil in the land – and not be limited to large scale tea businesses. 

It should be noted that many countries, especially those such as China and Japan have entire food businesses based on tea innovation with tea rice, bread, biscuits, broth, cakes and pancakes, cupcakes, tea lollies, etc. made with tea.

These countries are those which have spent much energy on ensuring that the industry grows with the people and keeps pace with youth – the age based stage where creative entrepreneurship thrive. There are vibrant minds at policy level appointed to propel the creative stimulus of the industry forward. Countries such as these have also invested in ensuring that the industry is equipped with all facilities to ensure dignity of the workers. Comfortable housing, transport, all manners of conveniences, health safeguards and education are provided with precision to detail, to ensure that young people will want to stay on in the industry and contribute to its growth in diverse ways.

Thus, as the tea industry celebrates 156 years in Sri Lanka, each Sri Lankan has to be a contributor to the national consciousness to understand and reciprocate in whatever manner that we can, to the yeoman service that these Sri Lankans – the plantation Tamil community of Sri Lanka – is carrying out daily.


Below are recommendations based on the research undertaken in this regard by the Harmony page team. If one is tempted to dismiss these suggestions as theoretically utopian we say – do one of these at a time – then the theory will be practiced and what is seen as utopian will be rationally acceptable. 

Every single citizen is the vehicle of the change we want to see.

An artist amongst us can promote paintings that reflect these Sri Lankans as an integral part of this nation and economy.

The educator amongst us can in the delivery of our teaching, say for example, English grammar based reading or writing – select writings that talk of these Sri Lankans.

School and university libraries can order books that speak of the plantation history and also those that encourage the way forward.


The tea industry as a whole has huge scope for innovation even after existing for one and a half centuries in the country. This scope has to be considered and brainstormed at policy level. This innovation should trickle down to young people of the sector – the families who toil in the land – and not be limited to large scale tea businesses

The lawyers amongst us can undertake to study the concept of justice as being relevant to these people.

The doctors amongst us, both the traditional and the western medical practitioners can do some practice based research – and follow up action to improve infant mortality rate in the plantation areas and early birth nutrition.

The agriculturists amongst us can take action to provide – formally or informally in whatever manner – food trees that grow in the region. In researching this article we were told that jackfruit found rampantly in the plantation areas is the reason that the families are warding off malnutrition caused by the soaring costs of food.

Food drying machinery dealers and inventors can support in providing home dryers to encourage jackfruit drying for home based entrepreneurship – alongside other food preservation based small business start-ups. The business leaders amongst us can with genuine intention assist in either individual or collective support for the young people of the plantation sector to innovate on the tea industry. Angel investors can be sought.

The philanthropists can sponsor these young people for study tours to countries such as China and Japan, selected possibly by recommendations of their school principals. Possibly organisations such as the Sri Lanka-Japan Friendship Association or Sri Lanka-China Youth Friendship Association (and other such organisations) could assist.

Our nation’s natural heritage

Any mother earth source that we thrive on economically is part of our nation’s natural heritage – although tea was a crop that was introduced from China – the unique flavour of Sri Lankan tea is due to the composition of the soil of this country. Hence tea can be further enhanced to be owned by this land and its identity merged with the hundreds of pre-colonial medicinal herbs. The Siddha physicians in the Tamil community can be encouraged to look at merging the medicinal component of tea with the medicinal component of the Siddha based herbs growing in this land.

The ministry responsible for culture and heritage could look innovatively at mainstreaming the concept of culture to encompass the Sri Lankan identity of the Plantation Tamil community while respecting their Indian origin. Thus a correct blend of diplomacy and national sovereignty could be achieved through emphasising and respecting through culture the heritage of the plantation community Sri Lankans.

A national policy of innovating the concept of home tourism could be unleashed by the ministry of culture in the tea sector in partnership with the private sector and elements such as the Sri Lanka Tourism Alliance. We will write in detail about the scope of this in our future editions.

State banking mechanisms such as the Regional Development Bank (RDB) could support a national policy on home tourism in the plantation sector, in partnership with the plantation companies that may have to include a re-haul or upgrade on the plantation infrastructure.

Possibly the Industrial Development Board can do their job of encouraging entrepreneurship of the nation by focusing on a range of tea based foods and artisan product innovation, assigning young people of the plantation community of Sri Lanka to undertake creative research into this realm. National universities especially those such as Uva Wellassa University could be encouraged to take a lead.

A local or international publishing company could be contracted to start a theory and practice based recording of ideas as above to set a timeline to bring out a multi-stakeholder focused book integrating the plantation community with the micro and macro-economic resurgence challenge.

The Harmony page will follow up on the above ideas at both national and independent level, publishing interviews and people based narratives as relevant, laying the foundation for the actual implementation of what is suggested.