The Meeriyabedda landslide tragedy in Sri Lanka in which dozens have died has exposed the condition of workers in tea plantations in Sri Lanka. This tragedy needs to be investigated keeping in mind the historical disadvantage and dispossession plantation workers have been subjected to.
Meeriyabedda — who or what is responsible?
The calamitous landslide in the Meeriyabedda tea plantation in Sri Lanka’s Badulla district on 29 October 2014 has claimed dozens of lives and many still remain unaccounted for. There has been extensive reporting on the scale of suffering. And indeed these stories have to be told, time and again, to embed them and the victims and survivors in our consciousness. But there are other narratives too that though salient have been insufficiently visible or largely absent from the dominant discourse and thus need emphasising.
To begin with, we have seen the face of traumatised plantation workers in Meeriyabedda but what does the face of capital look like — in the most literal sense, who owns the plantation in question? It appears that the Meeriyabedda estate belongs to Maskeliya Plantations PLC from the Ampittiakande Group, which in turn is a part of Richard Pieris and Company PLC. The company, which declared nearly 35 billion rupees in revenues in the last financial year, has interests in modern retail (the Arpico chain), tea, rubber, automotive products and a range of services in the financial, insurance, health and logistics sectors. Its mission includes to “continually strive for the upliftment of our community whilst adhering to high ethical standards in business.”
What then is the liability of the company in this tragedy? As disturbing as the silence of the company is the lack of attention to this question in the media thus far. The question of ownership is especially pertinent because the homes consumed by the swirling mass of mud and rock were line-houses, and the land and houses on plantations are company provided. After all, the right to housing on plantations is inextricably linked to the obligation to sell one’s labour to the plantation. It is the company that is responsible for zoning within the plantation. Given the framework of company raj that characterises the tea plantation sector in Sri Lanka why are not civil society and trade union organisations or indeed the state raising questions about the accountability of the company?
Failure of the disaster management cell
Who were “the people” who were apparently warned by the authorities — from the Disaster Management Cell to the National Building Research Organisation? How and in what manner were they warned and what information was given to them, and when? Was it in the power of the plantation workers to actually move, especially when they were not offered an alternative, as some survivors have said? What was the role played (or indeed not played) by trade unions claiming to represent the rights and interests of those workers and their families?
Even a cursory analysis of the reports and data available through Sri Lanka’s Disaster Information Management System underlines that the Meeriyabedda incident is very much in keeping with both the spatial and seasonal distribution of landslides. Badulla is one of the most landslide-prone districts in the country (alongside Nuwara Eliya, Kegalle and Rathnapura) and landslides peak during the two monsoon seasons with the second peak — coinciding with the current season — being generally higher than the first.
The database of the Landslide Studies and Services Division (LSSD) of National Buildings Research Organisation (NBRO), Ministry of Disaster Management, shows that there have been some 22 incidents of landslides in Badulla district between 1986 and 2009. Not only has there been a significant increase in incidents after 2003 — a national trend — but an overwhelming number of landslide events in Badulla have occurred between October and January. What measures were taken in the light of all this knowledge to enhance slope stability and mitigate risks including countering erosion, deforestation, and other causes of landslides? How is it that the risk, apparently already known to the authorities, was allowed to escalate and materialise with such tragic consequences?
The LSSD has an extensive network of capacities to map, prevent, and mitigate landslides, including early warning systems. Capacities in this respect are further augmented by the Disaster Information Management System. Despite this elaborate machinery why were warnings, if issued, not monitored for responses and appropriate corrective actions taken? At what point — national, provincial, district, divisional or departmental — were there failures? The LSSD has also issued guidelines for construction in landslide prone areas. Were these guidelines followed or compliance monitored with respect to the location of the now entombed homes in the Meeriyabedda estate area?
The answers to all these questions and the fixing of liability must be sought and vigorously pursued. At the same time we must also recognise the need for a more politically informed engagement with the larger issue of housing and plantation labour. Fundamentally, as much as the intensity of the hazard it is the vulnerability of the affected population that heightens risk; it is in fact the latter that paves the way for exposure to a hazard becoming a disaster. And the grim picture of precariousness and vulnerability that emerges from Meeriyabedda is reflective not of multiple development failures but of the manner in which plantation communities such as the one affected are actually integrated into the process of economic development.
Repoliticising Plantation Housing
Meeriyabedda and Koslanda estates fall in the Kotabakma Grama Niladhari division of Badulla district’s Haldummulla Divisional Secretariat (DS). Badulla is one of the country’s poorest districts and Haldummulla is included in a list of the country’s 100 poorest DS areas. Haldummulla suffers from several disadvantages including having the highest percentage (33.2) of agricultural households without ownership of any land and only one of 6 DS areas where more than 25 % of schools have only 1 or 2 teachers.
Kotabakma is also amongst the one of the poorest GN divisions. A 2006 study described it as “one of the GN divisions in Badulla district with the poorest housing condition, the most vulnerable food insecurity condition and consists (sic) of the most vulnerable road networks.” A 2003 study by the World Food Programme found Kotabakma to be in the “most vulnerable” category in terms of food insecurity; in fact more than half the population of Haldummulla was found to be in the same category. [i]
All these measures of deprivation, however, do not tell the story of the political economy of labour that undergirds the plantation system of extraction and accumulation.
Plantation housing – not just shelter
Within the political economy of plantations, housing is much more than about shelter. Housing, on Sri Lanka’s tea plantations, is a key element in the encampment and eventual entrapment of labour. A 2005 report of the Centre for Poverty Analysis (CEPA) rightly underlines that the housing system is an integral part of the “captive feature of the plantation system”.[ii] It is undoubtedly one of the “most enduring link[s] to the enclave plantation system” and thus lays the basis for an exceptional relationship between labour and capital mediated and reproduced by the company-state.
While it would be far from incorrect to view the plantations as an archipelago of exception — what with its history of workers being subject to outright slavery, bonded labour, disenfranchisement, statelessness, and company raj, among other forms of violence — it does not exhaust or explain the political economic dynamics that reproduce it. Central to these dynamics is that, as a rule, the Hill Country Tamil labour encamped on tea plantations embodies the convergence of the most salient vectors of exclusion and violence in Sri Lanka — class, caste, gender, and ethno-national origin.
The pattern of accumulation at the heart of the political economy of plantations hinges on the convergence of these vectors of disadvantage and dispossession. Notwithstanding its distinctive socio-political base, encampment is not unique to plantation labour. The exception paradigm risks therefore isolating plantation labour from other forms of encampment, such as the Free Trade Zones. It also leads to the idea, advanced in the CEPA report cited above, that physical dis-encampment, i.e. “separating housing from the estate”, would restore “a conventional employer/employee relationship.” But such a view underestimates and misreads the relationship between capital, state, and plantation labour.
The “conventional” itself is under such sustained assault from a combination of neoliberalism, defanged unionism and retreat of progressive/revolutionary social forces that it is no longer paradigmatic. The “neoliberal conventional” is casual, intermittent, temporary, and variously informalised employment.
Most importantly though, such a view risks losing sight of the fact that there has been for a while a steady trickle outwards of plantation labour but often only into more micro and individuated forms of encampment — from migratory labour gangs of workers on construction sites to women encamped within metropolitan homes as domestic workers to daily wage workers camped in vulnerable urban informal settlements.
Questioning the neoliberal company state
In fact, under the neoliberal company-state — an alliance between capital, government, and civil society — far from being the exception, encampment of labour is becoming the norm. As the late Indian economist Kalyan Sanyal argued, more and more labour is being pushed into the “wasteland” of the informal sector outside the domain of the circuits of capital although very much within capitalism. In this space “of the excluded and dispossessed” they “have nothing to lose, not even the chains of wage – slavery.”[iii] And it is the discourse of development that helps sustain this space of exclusion and dispossession by temporarily effacing the distress and multiple crises perpetrated by this system.
The labour camps on Sri Lanka’s plantations thus instantiate questions that go well beyond the human right to safe and adequate housing. Respect for such standards will no doubt have a significant positive effect on the lives of those labouring on the plantations. Nevertheless, in the absence of being nurtured by a broader and more radical political vision, at its best it will still only mean encampment with a human face, i.e. “development success”.
In the days to come we must do everything we can to assuage the trauma and insecurities of the survivors in Meeriyabedda, especially the orphaned children. We must also urgently identify and assist other such communities who maybe on the brink of such calamity. We must demand that the company-state be held accountable for the acts of omission and commission that has manufactured this tragedy. Yet, at the same time we must also work towards repoliticising the question, resist it being reduced to one of development failure, and set about recommitting ourselves to burying the company-state itself.
[i] United Nations World Food Programme Sri Lanka, Vulnerability of GN Divisions to Food Insecurity - Badulla District: 2003,- A Pilot Study jointly conducted by the United Nations World Food Programme and Badulla District Secretariat, 2003.
[ii] Centre for Poverty Analysis, Moving Out of Poverty in the Estate Sector in Sri Lanka: Understanding Growth and Freedom from the Bottom Up, 2005, p. 9.
[iii] Kalyan Sanyal, Rethinking Capitalist Development: Primitive Accumulation, Governmentality and Post-Colonial Capitalism, Routledge, 2014 , p.259.
Adadarena.lk (2014): “818 persons displaced in Meeriyabedda, rescue operations underway”, 30 October, http://www.adaderana.lk/news.php?nid=28577, accessed on 6 November 2014.
Aheeyar, M.M.M. (2011): “Preliminary Investigation on the Issues Related to Poverty and Marginalization of Estate Sector Communities in Badulla and Nuwara Eliya Districts”, Practical Action Consulting, available at http://practicalaction.org/docs/consulting/Final_Report__PAC_format.pdf, accessed on 6 November 2014.
Annual Report 2013/2014 of Richard Pieris & Company PLC, available at http://www.arpico.com/contents/img/RPC%202013-14.pdf, accessed on 6 November 2014.
Associated Press (2014): “Sri Lankan landslide: villagers defy police to claw through mud for missing people”, 30 October, http://www.theguardian.com/world/2014/oct/30/sri-lankan-mudslide-despera..., accessed on 6 November 2014.
Centre for Poverty Analysis (2005): “Moving Out of Poverty in the Estate Sector in Sri Lanka: Understanding Growth and Freedom from the Bottom Up”, available at http://siteresources.worldbank.org/INTMOVOUTPOV/Resources/2104215-118771..., accessed on 6 November 2014.
Daily News (2013): “Ampittiakande Group fetches all time record tea price”, 14 February, http://archives.dailynews.lk/2013/02/14/bus04.asp, accessed on 6 November 2014.
Database of the Landslide Studies and Services Division (LSSD) of National Buildings Research Organisation (NBRO), Available at: http://www.nbro.gov.lk/web/images/pdf/landslides_districts.pdf, accessed on 6 November 2014.
Limaye, Yogita (2014): “Sri Lanka landslide: 38 feared dead as death toll revised down”, BBC, 1 November, http://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-29863805, accessed on 6 November 2014.
Report of the Department of Census and Statistics (2011), available at: http://www.statistics.gov.lk/poverty/new%20119/summary%20information.pdf, accessed on 6 November 2014.
Sirilal, Ranga (2014): “No hope for survivors in Sri Lanka landslide, over 100 dead”, Reuters, 30 October, http://www.reuters.com/article/2014/10/30/us-sri-lanka-landslide-idUSKBN..., accessed on 6 November 2014.
This piece also appeared in the Economic and Political Weekly http://www.epw.in/web-exclusives/plantation-labour-buried-neoliberal-com...