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Planters’ lives: the myth and the facts

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by ACB Pethiyagoda

Some weeks ago Gamini Seneviratne reminisced in a very readable and amusing article in this paper of good times public servants had in Nuwara Eliya in the 1960s. These were particularly when on circuit to villages in the backwoods with food, drink and good company.

No one would have grudged them that as they made significant contributions to serve the public in a fair and just manner. This was partly due to their training and with less bothersome and uneducated politicians interfering in the discharge of their duties than at present.

The writer went on to say, “…..in that District, planters’ wives had to adjust to the routine of husbands – muster before crack of dawn, going through the paper work, ‘elevenses’, a heavy lunch, nap, back to the factory, followed by tennis where available, shop-talk, liquor, dinner and early to bed….”

Perhaps the writer was referring to Planters in charge of what are known as ‘Naatu Thotams’ which mean estates owned by Chettiars (money lenders) or the new rich who had made their money as crooked politicians, traders in illicit liquor, timber etc. These estates were managed or rather mismanaged by family members with no training and finally through neglect, fraud or both and lack of credit for routine operations ending up as denuded scrub jungles.

However the vast majority of Planters as Superintendents and their Assistants employed by reputed Agency Houses such as Colombo Commercial Company, George Steuarts, Whittall Boustead, Mackwoods, Carson Cumberbatch etc. which managed estates owned by local or British owned companies worked with a great sense of dedication and commitment and enjoyed their well earned creature comforts. Failures were not tolerated – a few days notice was sufficient for the high jump out of the premises.

The normal working day of an Assistant Superintendent (Sinna Dorai or SD) started at about 6 a.m. with muster. Over the years a system evolved by which the bulk of the workers both men and women assigned to different gangs with a Kangany (Supervisor) knew as a routine their places of work each day.

The men were usually tasked year round to weeding and to other cultural operations such as pruning, draining etc. at particular times of the year. Women were engaged entirely on plucking and divided into gangs, each assigned to particular fields, according to their years since the last pruning.

Hence, muster consisted of detailing sundry workers and more importantly where plans for the days work were made by the SD, his Conductor (later designated Field Officer) and the Kanganies. This was an important function as the work on a 400 to 500 acre tea division with around 1.2 workers per acre (500 to 600 workers) had to be planned for maximum cost benefit, labour wages being the largest portion of the cost of production.

It was here that shortfalls in output the previous day, modified approaches to improve standards of work or strategies to avert impending labour problems, which were almost daily occurrences resulting in loss of productivity, were adopted. It was a case of being one step ahead of possible problems every day.

A newly recruited SD was considered a liability to his employers until he sharpened his skills to develop as a firm and fair man manager conscious of his responsibility for a huge asset which, if neglected in the smallest way even on a single working day, the repair would be expensive and sometimes beyond correction.

Work gangs had to be visited at least once a day and their performance inspected and corrected as necessary. If it is manuring, the SD will spend the greater part of his day in those fields as the expensive fertilizer on which future harvests depend will need his closest attention.

Not only has he to ensure the application is carried out satisfactorily but also make certain that not a drop of the fertilizer ends up in neighbouring vegetable gardens! Women assigned to plucking must ensure their leaf is of acceptable standard and the required weight conforming to the norm for the season is brought in.

In the evening the SD will, with the assistance of the Field Officer, complete the Check Rolls and other books. This task can end up as late as seven or eight p.m. after which he can bathe, eat and get to bed – six days a week and on Sundays as well during high cropping months.

Prior to nationalisation of estates an Assistant would take at least five or six years to be promoted Senior Assistant Superintendent if on an estate with several Divisions or to a small estate as Superintendent. That too if he has an unblemished and commendable track record.

A Superintendent’s (Periya Dorai’s or PD’s) tasks are more demanding. He is sometimes without an SD and if the estate is about 300 or 400 acres, has to make sure that field work at all times is of a high order. This he can manage with his intense training as an Assistant with one or two Field Officers and Kanganies allowing him to spend the greater part of his time in the office and factory.

Another major responsibility is to arrange for essential foodstuffs like rice, sugar, flour etc. of good quality are bought for the labour and their families and issued at cost on a weekly basis.

Office work over the years increased with Agency houses, Government Departments, Labour Unions, Suppliers of goods and services etc. creating loads of paper work. Problems with labour have also increased tremendously over the years for several reasons.

The life styles or workers have changed drastically resulting in immense social and economic problems and alcoholism as well since their grandparents or great grandparents, mostly from the Pudukotai area in South India, came as indentured labour walking all the way from Talaimannar, with many dying on the pathways to the hill and low country estates.

These lead to conflicts among themselves, their union leaders and ending up with management which has to continually achieve high levels of productivity in spite of these human problems. While grappling with never ending union demands, and successive Governments granting them without realizing the adverse economic impact on the industry in order to maintain their vote banks, Superintendents have to keep a close watch on the bottom line of their profit and loss statements.

Effecting economies as a solution leads to declining standards which eventually have adverse effects on profitability. Hence, meeting the stringent demands of the tea market and obtaining high prices is about the only way to keep afloat.

Manufacture of black tea is a very exacting process where attention to every detail is a must. In the early evening the Superintendent will see that leaf is withered at the correct temperature and to the correct degree. Later in the night when the withered leaf is rolled to break it up, roller pressures and time in each of three or four rollers needs careful monitoring. Rolled leaf in lump form is then broken up in roll breakers to separate the small particles from the bigger to obtain dhooles’ which are spread on tables for fermentation and later for drying.

These processes also need care to ensure the product is neither over or under fermented or fired by carrying out constant checks on the inlet and outlet temperature of the dryers. Sifting into the various grades is normally carried out during the day and is less labour intensive than the other processes as various items of machinery are used.

Conscientious Superintendents will spend whole nights in their factories until after a time Tea Makers, (later designated Factory Officers) their supervisors and labour learn to carry out the various operations to perfection. Thereafter a Superintendent needs to follow up with surprise visits until adjustments become necessary in keeping with seasonal climatic changes.

The reward for all these efforts comes in the form of high sale averages and profit levels with occasional congratulatory message from local and London’s Mincing Lane brokers.

For several decades before the 1960s and for a few years after tea exports were the country’s highest foreign exchange earners with such earnings going a long way to import essentials like rice, sugar, flour etc. to keep the nation fed. This contribution to the national income was achieved by planters through dint of hard work, planning, execution and strong sense of accountability.

All in it was never a life of beer and skittles, elevenses, heavy lunches, long siestas etc. except occasionally when the job was done well and celebration justified.



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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