To provide scholarships for
poor tea estate students in Sri Lanka
‘Put the kettle on’ and ‘Let’s have a cuppa’ are familiar expressions in our households. We import teas from China, India, Kenya, Sri Lanka and other countries and blend them to suit our taste. Tea was first introduced to Sri Lanka in 1867 by James Taylor, a British planter who arrived there in that year. Other planters followed from all over the UK and tea cultivation became established. Some estates still bear the names of English counties, namely Dorset, Devon and Somerset. Some English planters built their houses in Tudor style and the town Nuwara Eliya, in the central hills, is still called ‘Little England’. At that time Sri Lanka was called Ceylon and the tea became known as ‘Ceylon Tea’.
One of the most beautiful sights in Sri Lanka is of the millions of square metres of rolling hills that make up the tea estates. The panoramic views of luscious and evergreen tea bushes are unforgettable. Visits to the tea estates have become part of the itinerary of foreign tourists and dignitaries. On their recent visit to Sri Lanka, Prince Charles and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall, were taken on a tour to these estates. Images of their visit, including pictures of women picking tea leaves and men at work on the estate can be seen on the internet. The images only give a partial view of life on the estates.
In the 19th century British planters brought Tamil labourers in large numbers from South India, now called Tamil Nadu, to work on the tea estates. Initially they had to clear millions of acres of virgin forests and woodlands in the central hills to create the tea estates. The work pattern established on the estates at that time has hardly changed since. Labourers work from dawn to dusk, for 6 or 7 days a week, in frequently dreadful weather conditions high up in the hills. They tend the tea bushes planted on the steeply sloping hills, walking between them on dangerously narrow foot paths for a paltry wage. Most of the labourers still live in the ‘ line rooms’ built over 250 years ago. They are the poor, marginalised, forgotten community of Sri Lanka. They do not have decent educational, medical, housing and sanitary facilities compared to other social groups, yet they are one of the most reliable and truly hard-working communities. This community is the backbone of the country’s economy, yet successive governments have continued to ignore its welfare and basic needs. Trade union leaders representing this community have been in a position to demand and insist on welfare reforms from successive governments but have hardly achieved anything substantial. They have had ministerial posts in every government but have not brought any remarkable changes to their own people.
For the children of parents who work on the tea plantations as tea pickers and as labourers in the tea factories, the outlook is poor. Most have little choice but to follow their parents and become labourers. Education offers the opportunity to improve themselves and extend their horizons, but it is hard-won. It is difficult to obtain even a basic education. Only a few schools provide science subjects. Until recently, education beyond “O” level was rare and going to university was unheard of within this community. It was simply unaffordable. Parents have no way of helping their children into higher education when their average take-home wage as an estate labourer is about £45 per month.
In recent years, despite all the problems, some students from the tea estates have earned university places and have been able to take up their places. If a student achieves a place at university, there is no course fee but they must pay for accommodation near the university. Students receive Rs 4000 (£20) per month from the government. The cost for board and lodging alone is from Rs 8000 (£40) per month in the halls and Rs 18,000 (£90) per month outside. Students struggle to fund themselves. They take up any menial work that they can find, but part-time work such as is obtained by UK students is not readily available in Sri Lanka. Fortunately some help has come from abroad. Following a visit to Sri Lanka, the Carmarthen Rotary Club in Wales set up a scholarship scheme providing Rs 2000 (£10) per month per student. This covers only a small fraction of the total cost, but is welcomed by the recipients. The Carmarthen scholarship is co-ordinated with the help of the National Peace Council of Sri Lanka. NPCS is a large organisation trying to promote peace and harmony among the ethnic, religious, social and language groups and also among the various political parties. More information is available on their website, peace-srilanka.org. Carmarthen Rotary Club are currently funding six students of poor parents from the Sri Lanka tea plantation areas for their 3/4 year course at Sri Lankan universities but I understand that they will not be able to support any others in the future. Some more students who have gained admission are looking for funds.
As a British citizen of Sri Lankan origin, now living in Harrogate, I am much troubled by the extent to which this particular section of Sri Lanka’s population has been, and continues to be, exploited and overlooked by all but a few. During my visit to Sri Lanka in April last year, I met Dr Jehan Perera, the Executive Director of NPCS and 6 undergraduates from various universities. The undergraduates were extremely thankful for the generosity of Carmarthen Rotary Club. I discussed how I might be able to help them. Dr Perera assured me that the money sent from donors abroad for the education of university students goes to the students in its entirety and nothing is taken away for their administration. Helping Tamil estate students in this way is one of their many services.
I was talking about this quite casually to a group of our parishioners and two offered to sponsor 3 students and are now doing so. It was also suggested that a coffee morning be held at St John’s to raise funds. Consequently the coffee morning on Saturday May 14th will be to raise funds to provide scholarships for underprivileged students of parents from the tea estates. The money will provide scholarships to help these students achieve a university education. If anyone would be prepared to individually sponsor a student with a minimum of £10.00 per month per student, their help would be much appreciated. Please contact me direct.
I hope that the coffee morning will be well supported and I thank you on behalf of myself and the students that will be helped.