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    Spare A Thought For Sri Lanka’s Forever Marginalised Communities

    ChildrenSpare A Thought For Sri Lanka’s Forever Marginalised Communities
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    Spare A Thought For Sri Lanka’s Forever Marginalised Communities

    Let us remind ourselves of the promise we have made to our future generations – all so clearly embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals. In the same breath, let us resolve not to leave anyone behind.

    By N Paul Divakar

    From a country of plenty to one desperately in need of aid – Sri Lanka’s people have borne much. Today, they are facing the worst economic crisis in its post-independence history. The worst hit are the working people – farmers, plantation workers, fishers, people from traditionally discriminated communities who have been facing discrimination based on work and descent, young people, women, queer people, students, or workers. It is these people who have been worst impacted as they queue-up for hours for fuel; and await scarce, yet overpriced food supplies and as shortage of cooking fuel cripple the family hearth.

    While the impact of the economic crisis is felt across all corners of the island, it is the women, children, person with disabilities, daily-wage earners, those dependent on micro, small and medium enterprises, the urban working poor, plantation workers and members of communities discriminated on work and descent (CDWD) who are the worst affected by this deepening crisis.

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    Even before the present economic crisis, the rising prices of essential items have depleted money in the hands of those living on subsistence wages. Communities affected by repeated tragedies – the long-drawn-out war, the tsunami, Easter bombings and the COVID-19 pandemic – are yet again facing a blow to their efforts to rebuild their lives.

    Elitism

    Every action of the present dispensation, being passed off as poor governance, actually stinks of elitism. Historically discriminated communities have had to bear the consequences. Their vulnerabilities have only grown further in the recent past.

    An example to remind us that their vulnerabilities are not new is the case of workers in the Katunayke Free Trade Zone. These vulnerabilities have just been further enhanced, but the people doing the hard work, mostly work based on descent, have always borne the brunt of the power of an elite State.

    To refresh memory, on 15 October 2020, while the COVID-19 pandemic was at its peak, Sri Lankan authorities imposed a curfew in parts of the Katunayake Free Trade Zone (KFTZ) and called in the military to round-up workers, late at night and early in the morning, to forcibly take them to makeshift quarantine centers. Many KFTZ workers were migrants from the countryside and lived in overcrowded boarding houses with minimum facilities. Among these workers were also pregnant women and children. In an attempt to control the spread of COVID-19, the military was called in on 11 October to round-up workers, late at night and early in the morning, to forcibly take them to makeshift quarantine centers.

    Media and civil society sources spoke of how soldiers raided the KFTZ workers’ living areas and packed workers into waiting busses to be driven to yet-to-be-established quarantine centers. Children were separated from their mothers.

    Is there place for such elitism in the twenty-first century?

    It is appropriate to ask this question in the context of Sri Lanka, considering especially that till a few decades ago, the country had the best human development indicators. But the developed SouthAsian country had an underbelly to hide. These were its less fortunate citizens who had to do the menial work they inherited over generations, as if it were duty to do so.

    Sadly, even the international community has not paid heed to these sections.

    Women

    The problem of a failing economy customarily falls on women as economic hazards are hard-pressed into the home sphere. Women face the double burden of earning an income while doing unpaid care work at home. Moreover, CDWD women face triple of that burden due to their location of caste, class and gender. Frustrations and fears of uncertainty, hunger and the lack of basic comforts often translate into violence directed at women and children at home. The limited existing services to address such violence are further arrested due to the pandemic and now the economic crisis.

    Unfortunately, aid is driven by what the government of the day wants. The aid provided so far has been to respond to needs as displayed by the media. It has little to do with what the most affected need.

    For example, the funds provided to the country is mostly for petrol and credit facilities. But there is little attention to rebuilding the country’s economy, particularly for people from marginalised and communities all along discriminated for the work they have done, and more particularly, the women from these communities.

    Donor agencies should raise the needs of people of CDWD backgrounds in their discussions with Sri Lankan authorities to ensure that their rights are protected. The needs of women and children from CDWD communities must be prioritised, especially as CSOs step up their relief efforts.

    Let us remind ourselves of the promise we have made to our future generations – all so clearly embodied in the Sustainable Development Goals. In the same breath, let us resolve not to leave anyone behind, as every SouthAsian works to help our Sri Lankan brethren bounce back stronger.

     

    N Paul Divakar is Convenor of the Global Forum of Communities Discriminated on Work and Descent.

    Image: Wikimedia / Dennis Keller

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