Landslide exposes land-related deprivation of Up-Country Tamils
The SL military is interfering in the assistance and resettlement of the Up-Country Tamil landslide victims in Meeriya-bedda in the same manner it interferes in the resettlement of Tamils in the North and East. The military is everywhere monitoring everyone visiting the affected. The victims have been demanding proper responses to their questions on where and how the resettlement housing and livelihood plans would be implemented, before moving into a longer-term temporary settlement inside an abandoned station factory. SL military, doctors and nurses, claiming to assist the the Tamil victims are all Sinhala-speakers. The military and language are used as means of oppression. A Sinhala-Buddhist supremacist approach is oppressing minorities in the Up-Country, said Rev Fr Fontgallan of the Leo Marga Ashram in Bandarawela.
After 2009, two military bases were established in Talawakelle and Badulla where Up-Country Tamils live in significant numbers.
It is said that the military would be constructing the resettlement houses for the landslide-victims.
Rev. Fr. Santhiapillai Guy de Fontgalland is the founder of Leo Marga Ashram (LMA), an alternative development-oriented action group based in Bandarawela. A few days ago, TamilNet interviewed him on the situation of landslide-affected victims of Meeriya-bedda in Badulla district.
Guy de Fontgalland, who has authored more than a dozen books, most of them on the plight of deprived communities in the Up-Country, is of the opinion that the people are facing unsaid hunger. As a result of the deterioration and other multiple factors, they would eventually face famine. He listed a number of factors such as the majoritarian oppression, dictatorial rule, corruption and inflation in cost of living.
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Since the British times, it has become a practice of building the so-called “Lines” or “Kaamburaa” [from the word Camera] rooms in low-lying lands in the Up-Country, he said.
In Meeriya-bedda too, the lines of rooms, where the people had been settled, were situated in a dale between two mountains. He described the catastrophe that occurred on the fateful day of October 29, 2014, as a Tsunami to the villagers. A 300-feet section of the highest mountain in the area had slide onto the settlement, causing the disaster.
When new lands were identified for resettlement at another low-lying locality, the people started to complain. The military presence is silencing the people from mobilising to articulate their needs, Guy de Fontgalland told TamilNet.
The victims expect at least 10 perches of land for residential and 20 perches for agricultural and farming purposes per family. But, nobody, be it the government, trade unionists or politicians seem to care about listening to the needs of the victims.
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There is an organisation with a 11-member-board, the Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT), which comprises of five members from the regional plantation companies, four members from the Sri Lankan government and two trade union representatives. It is this body, which is going to ultimately decide the fate, where the resettlement housing should be established.
In the past, the PHDT– constructed houses were not complete enough for the people to resettle. In most cases, the people themselves had to invest their own resources to complete the housing. In addition, the people have to bear the expenses for water and electricity.
To a normal village, the SL government takes responsibility to bring electricity to their village. But, for a plantation settlement, the people have to bear the expenses to bring electricity to their settlement.
The people were forced to take up loans for which they have to pay interest at the rate of 16% per year. In addition, those qualify for housing should have worked in the estate for 5 years and that they should be below the age of 45.
There is also a political purpose behind the announcement that PHDT will be constructing the resettlement houses for Meeriaya-bedda victims. It is also connected to the snap presidential elections, according to Fr Fontgalland.
In the previous budget, placed in December 2013, it was claimed that the government would be constructing 50,000 rooms or “kaamburaas” as multi-floored blocks. The people are opposed to the construction of multi-floored line rooms.
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In Meeriya-bedda too, there was a talk of constructing blocks. But, Fontgalland thinks that single houses would be built for Meeriyabedda victims. But, what he senses as the major problems are the lack of surveying and no one listening to the real needs of the people who have been dependent on their self-sustained livelihood so far.
The first issue is that the land allocated per family seems to be limited to 7 perches. This is not enough for the people to engage in household farming. “They can’t even plant a tree of their own. This will only force the people to abandon the settlement and seek places like the old locality. The families expect 40 perches of land together with electricity and water supply,” Fr. Fontgalland told TamilNet.
These are people who were not dependent on Estate employment. They were largely dependent on self-sustained farming. Therefore, they need compensation for their losses. They have lost three-wheelers, jewellery and virtually everything they owned. Such losses should be surveyed and compensated.
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63 families have been completely affected by the disaster. The parents, who went to work, and the children who went to school that morning, survived the disaster. Initial reports had put the number of people missing at 300. But, according to final reports, 37 people went missing and 13 of them are confirmed dead following the recovery of their remains.
Landslide danger has been identified in 10 districts in the Up-Country. There are several reasons that cause the disaster and the man-made ones range from large dam constructions to logging of trees, Fontgalland said. Some scientists also add that the deepening of Hambantota port as one of the factors, he added.
“Unfortunately, the political leaders and union leaders of the Up-Country have very little concern on the welfare of the people.”
It is a shame that the people who have toiled for the economic development of the island and who brought the first foreign exchange income into the country are still not able to own a perch of their own land in Up-Country, he said.
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Fr. Fontgalland has authored the following works on Up-Country Tamils: The Up country Tamils- A National Race, The Up country Tamils and Politics, Plantation women’s Rights, The Impact of Globalization on the Plantation Sector in Sri Lanka, Social Development and Poverty in the Plantation in Sri Lanka, The challenges faced by the Plantation Tamils in the 21st Century, Searching for Alternatives and Plantation community Moves for a Change.
With a vision of liberating the plantation community and a mission of creating an alternative leadership in the plantation sector through conscientisation programs aimed at a people’s movement, Fontgalland is working through Leo Marga Ashram (LMA), a non governmental and a Non-Profit organization opened to all, irrespective of ethnicity and religion.