Addressing The Issues:
Where The Sri Lankan Streets Have No Name
Many workers on the country’s tea growing estates have never had a postal address. This deprives them of state services and private mail. A local group is working to change this.
It can take time to appreciate the value of an address. In Sri Lanka one needs a physical address in order to do many things: receive letters, fill in official forms and register one’s property. And until you don’t have a physical address, you might not understand just how important it is.
But there are in fact thousands of Sri Lankans who do not have an address. Most of them live on the country’s tea plantations. One local organization, the Uva Shakthi Foundation, is trying to change this.
Once the national post system was established, the estate communities lost their right to addresses.
The foundation was formed in 1996 to help locals affected by landslides that year but it has since broadened its community outreach efforts in many different areas. In 2002, the foundation started to try to provide addresses for Sri Lankan estate workers, with a major project launched in January 2017. The project has started in the Wewassa, Mapagala, and Kandagolla estates in Badulla, the Dameria estate in Passara, the Hopeton and Uva Kele estates in Lunugala as well as the Spring Valley, Uva Ketawala, Memale and Kottagoda estates in Uva. The project’s aim is to provide addresses to around 3,000 families living on the estates.
With the help of the citizen’s councils on the tea estates, the foundation has managed to name the line rooms – the buildings in which the estate workers live – as well as to identify any streets without monikers. Some streets that seemed to be politically incorrect or somehow degrading to the workers were changed. Other less worrying names – like School Lane, for example – were left as they were.
“The hardships that these communities face due to the lack of an address are complex,” explains Sumith Abeykoon, the secretary of the Uva Shakthi foundation. “Having specific numbers for the line rooms will allow them to be registered in state institutions. And it becomes easier for the government to develop infrastructure in the tea estate sector.”
The history of the lack of addresses is dubious.
“The British rulers and the heads of the estates did not like Tamil labourers to form a good relationship with the Sinhalese communities because they were concerned about contacts with southern India,” explains legal advisor and researcher, Lakshman Shanthi Kumar. And they set up post offices in different locations, he continues, so that everyone had to post mail through these. Once the national post system was established, the estate communities lost their right to addresses because they were able to use the post offices.
“Estate workers did not often get their mail directly,” says Kumar. “Post offices gave the letters to the administrator’s office on the estate. It would pass through several hands before it got to the person concerned. Sometimes other people would know what was in the letters. Sometimes the intended recipients didn’t even get the letter. Invitations, interviews, bank documents and even documents attesting to qualifications were all lost.”
This is the kind of injustice and accident that the foundation now wants to prevent. Giving the streets a name and the houses a number will allow the estate dwellers far more contact with the outside world.
A permanent address is important in order to access all different kinds of state services, argues Nadeshan Suresh, the chairman of the foundation. It means that public health officers, security staff and agricultural consultants can all find the residents to assist them.
Suresh is particularly proud of his organization’s project providing addresses because he sees it as a way of empowering his fellow Sri Lankans. “Rather than distributing metal sheets or constructing toilets and irrigation, we are giving them the strength to stand up for themselves,” he says.
“It gives the community a better social standing,” Abeykoon concludes. “The estate communities who now have real addresses feel a new dignity.”