COLOMBO: The unprecedented landslide which struck Meeriyabedda tea estate in South Sri Lanka earlier this week, has exposed the historical neglect of the housing needs of tea plantation workers, all of whom are Tamils of Indian origin.
According to the latest reports, 120 houses were reduced to rubble at Meeriyabedda. And the 192 persons, who were reported to be missing, are now presumed to have perished under the debris.
With the search and rescue operation virtually abandoned, given its futility, government’s focus has shifted to fixing responsibility for not evacuating the workers when there were forewarnings about the landslide.
But the opposition United National Party MP, R Yogarajan told parliament that temporary re-location would not be a solution to the problem. Government should take the opportunity presented by the disaster to start providing safe, adequate and hygienic housing for estate workers, who are at the bottom of Lankan society.
“The over-whelming majority of estate workers live in unhygienic conditions in cramped line rooms built in 1877 by the British tea planters. Though an Estate Infrastructure Ministry was set up and `2500 million was allocated, only 4,600 houses were built by it, when the need was for 200,000 houses. Now the Ministry itself has been wound up, leaving the workers high and dry,” Yogarajan told Express.
However, according to Virakesari, the government has built 23,000 houses. But to build 180,000 more, 5,000 hectares of land, safe from landslides, will have to be chosen.
This means 4 per cent of the plantation area will have to be acquired.
India had allocated to the Lankan estate sector, 4,000 houses, as part of its project to build 50,000 houses.