Half a million Tamil repatriates whose forefathers had been uprooted from the native land to work in Sri Lankan tea plantations around two hundred years back find that they are Indians only in name.
Kanthasamy has reasons to believe that his gods have stopped smiling. A plantation worker by profession and a repatriate Tamil from Sri Lanka by destiny, he has to walk on barefoot for about 16 km each day in search of daily wage work in any of the small scale tea plantations of Nambiarkunnu, a tiny village across Tamil Nadu-Kerala border near Gudalur. His house is in fact located at Kolappally, virtually a plantation country of Nilgiris. Almost all the major tea plantations of Kolappaly are facing severe crisis for quite a long time due to shortage in production and plummeting prices. The crisis in the sector coupled with excess number of permanent workers has forced plantation owners not to assign even temporary jobs to people like Kanthasamy, who otherwise have to walk kilometers everyday in search of plantation jobs.
"Jobs are available in small scale tea plantations of Kerala's Wayanad district. But we have to walk many a kilometers each day through difficult terrains to reach there. The small scale cultivators there are paying very less citing our refugee status,' lamented Kanthasamy's wife Pappathi.
Kanthasamy's neighbor Nhanaseelan is more articulate about the plight of repatriate Tamils from Sri Lanka, who have settled in Nilgiri. ``The public sector tea company Tantea was established years back to rehabilitate the repatriates from Sri Lanka. Though it has emerged the largest plantation company in South India, most of the repatriates still remain wanderers in search of jobs from one village to another village and one district to another district,' he said.
S.Jayachandran of Tamil Nadu Green Movement shows another aspect of the flawed rehabilitation project for repatriates, which wasted a lot of natural resources and huge amounts of public money. `` In order to accommodate most of the repatriates from Sri Lanka, the government had opened 3,000 hectares of virgin forest land in the highly sensitive Nilgiri region for the much hyped Rehabilitation Tea Plantation alias Tantea. However, Tantea was able to provide employment to only 6,000 people. The majority are still living in abject penury and neither the repatriates nor the environment benefited from the trumpeted scheme,' he pointed out.
According to S. Manivasakan of Centre for South and Southeast Asian Studies at University of Madras, Tamil repatriates from Sri Lanka constitute a section of humanity who have been twice displaced. Their forefathers had been uprooted from Tamil Nadu circa 1823 because the British wanted them to clear Sri Lankan forests in the upcountry and set up tea estates. Their children and grandchildren were forced to look for a new home after the Sri Lankan Government stripped them off their citizenship once it gained independence in 1948. Most of them had no option other than returning to the mother land ever since the ethnic divide in Sri Lanka started affecting their survival in the island nation. They had to face the brutality of both majority Simhala might and minority Tamils of Sri Lankan origin.
The tragic events in their lives had took a major turn in 1964 when Indian Prime Minister Lal Bahadur Shastri signed a pact with his Sri Lankan counter part Sirimavo Bandaranayake to take back a huge chunk of Tamils of Indian origin. The only concession the Lankan government made was that, of the 8.25 lakh Tamils identified to be of Indian origin, it agreed to absorb three lakh as its own. In 1974, another bilateral agreement was signed under which Indian would absorb another 75,000 people and Lanka an additional 75,000 as its nationals so that the ratio would be read: for every seven Tamil repatriated to India, Sri Lanka would grant citizenship to four. As per the agreement, the entire process was expected to be completed by October 1981. According to Kanthasamy, the repatriation, which began in 1968, continued till 1983, when the ferry service between Talaimannar in Sri Lanka and Rameswaram in India was suspended due to the militancy in northern Sri Lanka.
According to data available with the Union Government, as many as 4, 61,630 Tamil repatriates are living in India now. They belong to 1,116,152 families. Of these, 3, 33,843 were repatriated under the cover of different agreements. The balance represents a natural increase. Among them, 4,639 families were moved to Kerala, Karnataka and Andhra Pradesh and were rehabilitated in projects started by the respective governments. Though the rubber plantations started by Kerala government in Kollam district and Karnataka government in Uttara Kannada district had ensured better living condition for those repatriates who reached these states, the tea plantations and spinning mills started in Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh with the same purpose turned abject failures. Though the Tamil Nadu government had splurged crores for their welfare, most of the repatriates still remain poor wanderers from one village to the other due to corruption, mismanagement and shortsightedness by officials.
The travails of V.Kulanthai Velu, a repatriate now settled in Uppatti near Gudalur, are representative of the half a million people, who have been described across Tamil Nadu as `Thayagam Thirumbi Vandha Tamil Makkal (Tamils who returned to their motherland). "My return to India was more gruesome than my grandfather's trip a century ago to Sri Lanka to work in tea estates. He was not given any promise of a decent life. It was sheer poverty and caste discriminations that forced him to move out of Tamil Nadu and to cross the sea. But in my case, the Indian High Commission told me that I am an Indian and that I should come back as a good rehabilitation scheme awaits me,' he recalls. Kulanthai Velu reached Rameswaram in 1981after obtaining and Indian passport and promised travel concessions. "At Rameswaram, the Indian official greeted me with abuse for not knowing clearly about what I wanted to do in India. I said I want to work in plantation as that is the only job I know. He retorted, `Then you should have stayed in Ceylon.'
E.V.Ilamparuthi has another version of the flawed rehabilitation drive. Soon after his landing in Rameswaram in 1979, he was directed to reach Pudupalayam near Salem. There he became owner of a one-cent plot and was provided with a loan of Rs 10,000 to construct a house. After the house construction, Ilamparuthi became pauper and he left the village to Nilgiri in the absence of any job opportunity there. Now he is a manual worker with a house construction firm. According to him, the government had provide one-cent plots and small housing loans to many a repatriates, who reached villages of Agraharam Vazhapady, Pudupalayam, Mannaickenpatti, Thukkiampalayam, S.Vazahappady and Singapuram. All of them had abandoned the houses in the plains in the absence any plantation work and went to Nilgiri.
As per information available with Nilgiri unit of People's Union of Civil Liberties, the number of Tamil repatriates in India would come around half a million as the official statistics exclude another 60,000 people who come through the air route on different occasions. ``The situation of Thayamagam Thirumbi Vantha Tamil Makkal is really pathetic. In India they are being treated as Sri Lankans and in Sri Lanka they are being referred as Indians. India has spent around Rs 2,000 crore so far on their rehabilitation. But most of the repatriates still remain unsettled due to the failure of the grandiose schemes,' according to N.Vasu, Nilgiri district secretary of CPI (M). He blames the bureaucratic negligence and unimaginative ways adopted by the state machinery for the failure of the schemes.
"In fact, nobody is interested in the welfare of these people. As far as the ruling elites in New Delhi and Colombo are concerned, they represent a statistic. To the tea plantation owners in Nilgiris and surroundings, they constitute docile cheap labour to be exploited to the hilt. To the Sri Lankan Tamils, a group readily available for communal propaganda and to the fanatics among the Simhalese the easiest and defenseless victims in times of communal conflict,' points out V.Suryanarayan , former director of Centre for South and South East Asian Studies.
In the beginning, the rehabilitation was planned on a family basis. As soon as the Indian government recognizes them as Indians and issue passports, the repatriates are required to apply to the Indian high commission for a family card, which gives details of the family, the type of occupation which they are assigned, the grants to which they are entitled, their place of employment etc.
"The repatriates' trail of misery begins right at the stage they get their family card because they hardly realize that their fate in India would be determined only by the entries in the card. They fail to identify the right job, the right place and further, as there is no caste-based reservation in Sri Lanka, they fail to mention that they are all Dalits from Tamil Nadu. They are deprived of the benefits meant for SCs and STs because their card does not contain this information,' according to a study by National Conference of Repatriates (NCR).
According to Vasu, the main hurdle faced by the repatriates was the shift from mono-occupational structure in Sri Lanka to the diversified occupation in Tamil Nadu. The post-globalization crisis in tea plantation sector has intensified their problems, he argues. The NCR study has also confirmed that more than 70 per cent of the repatriates were reduced to wandering from village to village, district to district and office to office soon after their landing in the mother land in search of jobs. Though they finally abandoned the plains and trekked their ways to the hills like Nilgiris, Kodaikanal and Yercaud, the crisis in the plantation sector had made their survival more tuff. ``In the hills, we were thrilled to see plantations of tea and coffee. But the fall in prices of tea and coffee had dampened our spirits. Now, most of our people are searching jobs in construction sites of neighboring Kerala districts of Kozhikode and Malappuram,' informed Shanmughan, another repatriate.
"The situation is not different even in the case of those who working in cooperative spinning and weaving mills across the state. Weaving is also turning unprofitable now a days,' points out Manivasakan.
According to Vasu, more than 83 per cent of the repatriates were given Rs 5,000 to start a business of their own. In the new country, they squandered the money in less than five months and became paupers. Since they have opted for a rehabilitation programme, they are not entitled to any other scheme. So most of these people are working as casual laborers and earning a pittance.
In the opinion of NCR, the Tamil repatriates lag way behind in the scale of priorities of the Union Government. ``The maximum subsidies and the more tolerable rehabilitation schemes are earmarked for Tibetan refugees followed by Bangladesh refugees. This despite the fact that only the repatriation of Tamils was precipitated by the Indian government,' it argues.