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12th June 2024 (12 Topics)

Sri Lanka’s Malaiyaha Tamils

Context

In a recent development, an international tribunal composed of former judges from the region expressed shock at the harsh realities faced by Malaiyaha Tamil community, Sri Lanka's tea and rubber plantation workers.

Who are Malaiyaha Tamil community?

  • The community originally brought from India to work in Sri Lanka's plantation sector over 200 years ago.
  • The Malaiyaha Tamils live in upcountry Sri Lanka. 
  • The community is a distinct ethnic group, constituting the fourth largest population on the island nation — following the Sinhalese, the ‘Sri Lankan’ Tamils, and the Muslim community. 
  • They’re one of thepoorest communities in the country — underpaid and overworked.
  • Economic Contribution: Despite their significant contribution to Sri Lanka's tea industry, with tea exports fetching approximately $1.3 billion annually, these workers receive meagre wages that barely meet their basic needs.

Discrimination faced by the Malaiyaha Tamil community

  • Ethnic discrimination: They continue to face discrimination based on their ethnic origin.
  • No land rights: The community continues to be denied land rights, further exacerbating their socio-economic marginalization and perpetuating cycles of poverty.
  • Labour Exploitation: The workers, primarily women, are subjected to exploitative working conditions, including low wages tied to demanding daily targets of tea leaf plucking, regardless of weather conditions or safety concerns.
  • Living Conditions: These workers endure inhumane and degrading living conditions in colonial-era line room accommodations, where multiple individuals often share cramped spaces with poor sanitation facilities.

There is urgent need for comprehensive measures to address the systemic discrimination and socio-economic injustices faced by the Malaiyaha Tamil community. This includes ensuring fair wages, improving living conditions, protecting land rights, and addressing exploitative labour practices across industries.

Fact Box: Important Pacts

  • Sirima-Shastri Pact: Signed in 1964 between prime ministers Lal Bahadur Shastri and Sirimavo Bandaranike, the pact repatriated at least half a million Indian-origin Tamils to India. But those who remained behind in Sri Lanka had to struggle for rights up until 2003, granted tenuous citizenship in 1977. 
  • Other similar pact: Sirima-Indira pact (1974)

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