The Plight of the Dispossed Kandyans &  The  Way Ahead
Posted on August 23rd, 2018

By Garvin Karunaratne

These days very often it is in the news that Estate Workers in the Hill Country  are being bestowed with the ownership of land- seven or nine perches  equipped with a house- mostly donated by India.  This happens to be the Estate population that was brought in as indentured labour from South India  in around 1825- 1900, to run the coffee and later the tea plantations.

It is necessary to look at what is happening in the Kandyan Hills from a historical perspective.

When the British conquered the Hill Country  the life blood of the people living there depended on the paddy land in the lower reaches- the valleys. Their income depended on paddy cultivation, livestock and home gardens.  Their homes were sited in the land slightly above the paddy land and  the upper reaches of the land was in virgin forest, attached to the village for the service of the village. The forest was maintained and controlled by the Village Council.The main function of the virgin forest in the upper reaches was to provide a constant supply of water for cultivation purposes, when there is no rain and for the cattle to live in during the period when the paddy land is being cropped. The cattle were let loose on the paddy land  when there was no cultivation and when cultivation commenced the cattle were sent to the forests.. The forest also enabled the people to get timber to make homes and  for the supply of firewood. Thus the virgin forests in the mountains played an essential part in the economy and well being of the villages.

The British colonizers found the climate in the upper areas like Nuwara Eliya ideal and it was also found that that was the ideal climate for coffee. The British wanted an income from the colonies and they commenced plantations. For that purpose they wanted to take over the forest areas in the mountains. For this they  brought in legislation- The Crown Lands Ordinance was legislated and all unoccupied land was deemed to be belonging to the Crown. The land grab did not stop with that. This virgin forest land on the mountains were sold at a  very low value of some six shillings an acre to planters from Britain. Many higher ranking civil servants also cashed in and bought the land. They built up fences on the boundaries.

They destroyed the forest and started planting coffee. The people in the villages suffered. They found that their paddy lands did not get water when the rains ceased. The forest retained the rain water and continued to supply the paddy lands even after the rains were over. They no longer had the forest to get their timber supply for building homes and for collecting firewood. They also had no place to keep their cattle during the paddy cultivation season. In other words the entire economy of the Kandyan people broke down.

In other colonies too in Rhodesia, in South Africa and Kenya too there were Crown Land Ordinances grabbing the Commonly held forests. Karen Blitz(Issak Dinesen) documents in Out of Africa, how in Kenya when the forest land was sold, entire villages with all the people were also sold to planters. In Sri Lanka it is on record that when villages were within the land earmarked for sale, the Army and Police were used to destroy the villages and chase the villagers away.

If anyone is to get back land from the plantations that were established, it should be the Kandyan villagers who have lived from immemorial time, not the indentured labour that was brought in by the colonial British in the last Century.

Let us look at the sale of the land on the Estates from a different angle.  My childhood holidays were spent at my uncle’s place at Mahawela Estate in the Pinkanda Group in Nivitigala. There was a settlement of around two hundred  coolies- men and women workers who worked on the Estate.  The Estate required their work for tapping the rubber trees, and maintaining the Estate. The workers- coolies were provided with quarters- they were called lines- one room apartments. The workers were always required and they had to be ready at hand at all times.

Without the workers the Estate economy crashes.

It is like the economy of a rich family with live in servants- two cooks, a driver, a watcher, a gardener and all of them have small quarters at the back of the residence. Take that supporting staff away and  the economy of that rich family crashes. So does the Estate economy crash with not having the homes- the coolly lines for the workers.  It is time for deep thinking for the Plantations Ministry before the Plantation Industry will inevitably faces death.

I have worked in the Kandy and Nuwara Eliya Districts and what is very special  in these two Districts is the sheer poverty of the peasants and their innocence.  They are a downtrodden lot..

This poverty and destitution need not be the case. The forests are gone for good but the fact remains that the land is extremely fertile. Nuwara Eliya- Badulla can supply all requirements of vegetables, potatoes Strawberries, pears etc. Peradeniya- Galaha can produce avacadoes. Naula can produce mangoes and other fruits. Vanilla can be produced. Production has to be stepped up and imports stopped. Today all these products are imported. I lived a year in Nuwara Eliya  and   got a bumper crop of potatoes,and veg.  Then the Marketing Department was there to buy it. Now that MD is no more and anyone who produces veg will be at the mercy of the traders. Cooperative organizations have to take over the marketing and small industry at bottling juice etc. I am certain that this can be done

It is sad that the Kandyan Peasantry Commission could not do anything worthwhile.

Once I and Mr P.C.Imbulana, the Governor of the Central Province tried.

On one of my visits to Sri Lanka, in 1993, I ran into Mr Imbulana. He was then the Governor of the Central Province. In conversation he scolded me for working for other countries and ignoring Sri Lanka. He had come to know of the Programme for Youth Self Employment I had established in Bangladesh, which had by that time guided tens of thousands to be self employed and insisted that I should do something for the Central Province. I accepted the challenge and spent a fortnight at his residence, using his vehicle, traveling in the Province, meeting officials and assessing..

I wrote out a  A Programme for Self Employment Creation  and Poverty Alleviation in the Central Province. The Plan was to achieve poverty alleviation by increasing the skills and abilities of people on a definite basis, increase the production , enrich the economy, obviate imports. The Programme involved  agriculture, livestock, poultry, industry and the service industry.  It was based on fully uitilizing the current development departments and maximizing the production in the villages.  The Plan  was to have a development plan to maximize the  production of every family. A Pilot Project was immediately commenced in Hasalaka and Nawalapitiya and the Grama Sevakas were given a two weeks’ training at Mahaberitenna Farm.  Marketing aspects were to be worked out through cooperatives and industries based on using the produce in the area were planned. I myself addressed the officials in training and commenced work at both areas.. Though the Governor accepted the Plan and found savings to commence the Pilot Project no funds or approval was forthcoming from the Central Government. The Programme  was schelved due to the defeat of the ruling party at the General Election. .

This Programme is given at pages 321 to 341 of my Book:How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka & Alternate Programmes of Success, Godages, 2006.

Judging from my achievement in Bangladesh, where the Youth Self Employment Programme established by me in 1982, has today grown up to be the premier employment  creation programme the world has known, with over two million youths becoming self employed by 2011,  I can assure anyone that  a similar programme can herald the alleviation of poverty in the Kandyan areas.. Today the Department of Youth Development of Bangladesh spends 95% of its funds and time to create employment for the youth and to create the production that Bangladesh requires. The tasks of the Department was moved from cultural and social work to economic development. My job  was to design the programme, establish it and train the staff to continue it after my two year consultancy.

Perhaps there could be a way ahead for the Kandyan countrymen..

Over to our leaders.

Garvin Karunaratne

Former Government Agent, Matara District   23/8/2018

Author of  How the IMF Ruined Sri Lanka & Alternative Programmes of Success(2006)

How the IMF Sabotaged Third World Development(2017), Godages

4 Responses to “The Plight of the Dispossed Kandyans &  The  Way Ahead”

  1. aloy Says:

    Tea industry is not sustainable. If the GOSL removes the subsidies it will collapse. This means they are living partly off the other tax payers money. Why settle them in land belong to Kandian peasants and ultimately make an Indian enclave which will be owned and nurtured by India?. Send them to other areas where their labour can be utilized. Perhaps they also will like it.

  2. Christie Says:

    First British (East India Co) brought in Indians to administer the Dutch Possessions that the British took from the Dutch. These Indian Colonial Parasites settled in the North.

    We Sinhalese lost our land to the Indian Colonial Parasites.

    I know this because our parents lost their land to Rubber Plantations in Colombo and Ratnapura Districts.

    No the British or Indian have so far paid us any compensations.

  3. Christie Says:

    ” our parents” our parents grand parents.

  4. Ratanapala Says:

    The effort in Sri Lanka should be first to regain our food security. Making tea for the world will not solve Sri Lanka’s problems. If they have to run on government subsidies as Aloy says, these must be stopped and turned over to other food making enterprises and industries. In the end all effort in a soceity should be to meet its basic needs first and then only other luxuries.

    It is far better to let the tea land go fallow and make way to ensure continued water supply to our water tanks and irrigation systems. Even water for electricity shoud be a secondary consideration after providing enough water to last the year around for food production. Fresh water is a commodity that is getting incresingly difficult to find around the world. Sri Lanka must conserve and maintain its water resources and their quality.

    Tea industry has done much damage to the land by way of soil erosion and displacement of indegenous people from their land. It is sad that these innocent people find no representation in Sri Lanka. Even the people who are supposed to represent them over the decades have let them down sadly.

    To this day the Kandyan Peasantry Commission is laying fallow instead of the tea land! This in the long term is the fate of all Sinhalese who not only have no means, but have become de-sexed and impotent to fight for their own rights.

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