by GAD Sirimal
Your editorial, ‘Tea Snapshot’ (SI June 4) kicks off with the comment, ‘The publication of Merril J Fernando’s autobiography last month is a useful peg to hang a discussion on the Ceylon Tea industry.’ As a person hailing from an up-country tea growing area with family engaged or employed in tea estates, I decided to comment on two aspects mentioned in the editorial.
These are: (1) “The British brought in indentured Tamil Labour from India to work on their tea estates under harsh conditions because the upcountry peasantry was reluctant for various reasons to work on the plantations.” (2) These were created at tremendous environmental cost on land sold for a pittance under the infamous Waste Land Ordinance of 1840″.
In so doing, I wish to quote from an address by Sir Hugh Clifford, Governor of Ceylon, at the second Annual Agricultural Conference on March 11,1927. On indentured Tamil labour from India, he quotes Emerson Tennent thus: “The temptation of wages and no prospect of advantage, has hitherto availed to overcome the repugnance of the Sinhalese and Kandyans to engage in any work on estates, except the first process of felling the forest.”
Tennent adds: ‘That the Ceylon estates enjoy a perennial supply of voluntary immigrant labour is one of the happy accidents which have contributed to the welfare of this fortunate isle; but if the soil of the districts of Madras Presidency from which that supply is drawn, were as fertile as is that of the most thickly populated parts of Ceylon, the estate owners might whistle in vain for the Tamil labourers to flock to their assistance, and our principal agricultural industries would quickly languish, for the place of these workers, on the upland tea estates at least, could never be taken by the people of this Island.”
The Governor says: “The repugnance to work upon the upland estates, to which Emerson Tennent bore testimony in 1886, is, I believe, as unconquerable today as it was 70 years ago.” On the question of land Sir. Hugh says “whether in ancient times, waste and unoccupied land was or was not vested in the sovereign, to me it seems that the matter is one of historical and academic, rather than of practical interest.
“The section of the Ordinance No.12 of 1840 – all forest, waste, unoccupied or uncultivated land are presumed to be the property of the Crown until the contrary is proved, and that is the law as it stands today. As I understand the contention of some of my honourable friends, their claim is that ‘forest, waste, unoccupied or uncultivated lands’ should by right be vested, not in the Crown but in the people. “But I would ask, for practical purposes, is this not a distinction without a difference?
What do we mean by such land being ‘vested in the Crown’?. Not that His Most Gracious Majesty, personally or through the agency of his servants, desires or proposes to put it to uses of his own, but that all such land is to be recognized , not as the property of individuals, but as one of the principal public assets of Ceylon. As such, the Colonial Government – whether it be constituted as it was on the past under the old Crown Colony system or administration, or as it is constituted today, when the power of decision in matters great and small has in the main been transferred to the chosen representatives of the people of this Island, or as it may hereafter be constituted in some yet more liberal mould – however, the Government of Ceylon may be constituted, it will always be one of its primary and most imperative duties to guard and defend the land – this great asset of the people, of the taxpayers – free from encroachment by individuals or groups of individuals; and further, to the best of its ability, to see that it is alienated in the manner most nicely calculated to promote the prosperity of the Island and the highest interests of its inhabitants”
On the accusation ‘The upcountry peasantry lost their common grazing land….’ he comments ” I occupied the Colonial Secretary’s chair in this colony for more than five years, and I can and do bear unhesitating testimony to the fact that every application for land from Europeans or Ceylonese planters received at the hands of the Revenue Officers of that time the most searching scrutiny; that the requirements of the villagers were invariably their first consideration, and they were prepared to fight tooth and nail to prevent encroachment upon them”,
The pioneer European planters invested their own funds, walked through pathless jungles and lived in log cabins when they planted the estates. Within a few years these paths were converted to roads and their cabins replaced by bungalows at picturesque sites. Progressively, they opened up roads, railways, constructed irrigation channels, in short developed infrastructure to serve their purpose no doubt; but in the long run it helped the development of the country. One should consider the stupendous work undertaken in constructing the railway track, tunneling through mountains manually, as there was no machinery then. How many would have lost their lives?
In addition to the plantation sector, the colonial rulers had an efficient administrative service, maintained law and order and also encouraged restoring ancient ruins. One such is the restoration of Ruwanweli seya in the mid 1880s. To all appearances, they considered this country as their own and ploughed back what was earned by way of taxes for development, not expecting that time would come for the indigenous people to demand independence to govern themselves.
I leave it to the readers to judge the present situation of the country, where what the colonial rulers built is now being sold, enriching a few. No legal action is taken against he culprits who are given state protection
“Are we fit to rule ourselves?” I ask.