Business Times

Miracle of Asia should not have humans living in ‘Line Rooms’

By Dulan de Silva

The President and the Government wants to make Sri Lanka the miracle of Asia. Good luck to them and we would like to do our bit to make this a reality. However is this possible if we still have people living in line rooms in plantations comprising one room of 250 square feet sharing unhygienic toilets and lacking even access to clean water? No country which can aspire to strive for miracle status can have its people living in such 15th century conditions.

The recent wage increase gives an opportunity to move towards a sustainable solution to solving the housing and sanitation problem of plantation workers in a mere 10 years if all stakeholders focus and develop a strategy and a plan to achieve this. This article tries to give some ideas as to how to bring this about.

There are 914,678 people living in the plantations (census 2001). Even as recent as 2005, 64 % of them live in line rooms (CFS, CBSL 2005). This has not improved much since then as the Government virtually stopped even the small amount of houses they were being constructed on and off due to lack of funding and other constraints. Thus the current need for houses in plantations can be estimated at 117,078 assuming an average of 5 live in one house. A majority of the houses built in the past 40 years since nationalization was built by various Government and donor schemes which gave them free housing or pretended to charge them but did not follow up on such charges.

This policy has given an expectation to the workers that companies, donors or government must build houses, toilets and provide them free. Line rooms that do not have individual clean toilets have television and mobile phones but they are reluctant to invest in housing and sanitation. However the construction of few on and off houses only leads to dependence and not to a sustainable solution for the housing problem.

Hence the first step is for the government and plantation companies in agreement with unions to clearly say that the policy is not to construct any new houses free for any family with working members below the age of 50. Any new housing or toilets for example from the proposed new Indian grant should only be aimed at families with workers who are 50 years or more or even retired workers. In fact they could even target it better by finding really poor families where elders live alone and are neglected. The Indian government should be persuaded to build at least 10,000 of the proposed 100,000 houses in plantations. If trade unions genuinely want to assist the workers they will support such a policy decision and in fact should take the lead in this endeavour.

The next step should be to have an awareness campaign with the support of trade unions and NGO’s that housing and sanitation are no longer a responsibility of the Government or plantation companies but of the workers. NGO’s working in plantations can play a major role in this.

The Government and plantation companies must provide access to land for house construction and provide a minimum of 7 perches for a family. The Government and plantation companies must also develop a document which gives them some sort of ownership right even if this is a 99 year-old lease. This is one area the Government can assist as they own the land. Workers would not like to pay a loan and have no document of ownership even if this means a 99-year lease. Trade unions once again can play a major role to bring this about.

Then banks and MFI’s must be made aware of the potential in this market and get them focused on housing for “plantation workers”. A house costing Rs.300,000 to Rs.500,000 can be easily designed using low cost construction material and avoiding use of asbestos. One can start with families where there are two working members below the age of 50 years. With current wages at Rs.500 a day most such families can earn Rs.20,000 a month and can easily deduct Rs.4000 to Rs.5000 for a housing loan. As deductions are made by the company from the salary there will be very little risk for the financial institutions as even if one of the two workers in the family decide to move elsewhere for work the deduction can be made from the other person. However another way the Government can assist is to permit part of the EPF to be used by workers for loans from banks and regulated MFI’s.

Habitat for Humanity, an INGO totally focused on housing for the poor that over the years has built over 10,000 houses and has expertise in low cost housing, can provide advice on use of low cost material, designs and other innovative options. They themselves can plan to build at least 5,000 houses for plantation workers in the next 10 years as so far they have built only 1,605 houses in plantations. Habitat can play a major role in this dream of ensuring all plantation workers have access to a separate house and should include this in its next strategic plan starting 2013. Lusfus an organization created by UN Habitat is pioneering a credit-based housing scheme in the Kahawatte Group and they also provide loan guarantees for financial agencies for house construction for the poor. Berendina Micro Finance Institute is also planning to commence a credit based housing project with the Watawala Group. The private sector and banks should also see this as an investment opportunity.

Construction is another key area with major loopholes as private contractors will try to make a quick buck building low quality houses by paying bribes to responsible officials as done in the Government sector. Here again a partnership of plantation companies and NGOs mutually checking and balancing each other through group responsibility for decisions regarding choice of construction company or the ‘baas’ can ensure less corruption. A joint program will reduce corruption. The funding agencies should partner acceptable NGOs and provide a small sum for their services whilst companies will take on this as part of their services.

The Plantation Housing and Welfare Trust as the key government controlled agency responsible for plantation housing should focus on creating the enabling environment for this programme. They should:

1. Be involved only in construction of free houses for those above 50
2. Help in making workers aware that no free housing and toilets will be given for families with working persons below 50 years old
3. They should assist plantation companies and the Government to release land. Not make this a monopoly but aid the process.
4. Should take the lead role in preparing a document to hand over ownership of some sort to workers.
5. Facilitate banks and MFI’s to come to this sector
6. Help design models low cost houses in partnership with agencies focusing on low cost housing construction.

All the 22 tea planting companies must make this a priority and have targets for completion of all housing in 10 years. The above strategy will not cost them funds but allow them to live with a conscience that they are not making money from the labour of humans living in sub-human conditions.

(The writer is a free lance consultant in poverty alleviation and Chairman of Berendina
Development Services (Gte) Ltd and Berendina Micro Finance Institute (Gte) Ltd).

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