Monday, Feb 17, 2003
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By V.S. Sambandan
Addressing the concluding session of the 33rd biennial convention of the Ceylon Workers' Congress (CWC), he said the Government was working on a draft bill that would provide citizenship for those who had stayed in Sri Lanka after the Srima-Shastri pact. All political parties, he said, had recognised the need and urgency for solving this issue.
Mr. Wickremesinghe was responding to demands made by the CWC on a various issues. Apart from statelessness, the problems confronting the 1.8 million plantation workers include rising costs and lack of appropriate socio-economic infrastructure, particularly housing. The convention, first since the demise of S. Thondaman in October 1999, was also a forum for the new leadership of the 63-year-old CWC to demonstrate its consolidation. After Thondaman's death, his grandson, Arumugan Thondaman, assumed the leadership.
The high-profile political participation in the convention, including the Leader of the Opposition, Mahinda Rajapakse, the adviser to the President on National Integration, Anura Bandaranaike, and the deputy leader of the Sri Lanka Muslim Congress, Basheer Segudawood, came as a pointer to the crucial role played by Sri Lanka's minorities in the final parliamentary outcome over the decades.
Guest speakers from international labour fora and political groups included Salman Khurshid from the Congress and Kumari Ananthan, former Tamil Nadu MLA.
The problem of the disenfranchised was highlighted by most of the speakers, including Mr. Arumugan Thondaman.
The unresolved issue is as old as the history of independent Sri Lanka, when the Citizenship Act of 1948 and the Indian and Pakistani Residents (Citizenship) Act, 1949, left almost all upcountry Tamils disenfranchised.
Subsequently, under the Srima-Shastri (1964) and Srima-Indira (1974) pacts, about 3.75 lakh and six lakh people became citizens of Sri Lanka and India respectively.
However, the ``residue'' and their descendants who had opted to stay on in Sri Lanka - continue to remain stateless.
Though this issue predates the separatist conflict, it was eclipsed by the advent of militant politics in the island's north and east.
Moreover, the political approach of the late Thondaman changed immediately after the 1976 Vadukkottai resolution which called for a separate state to one of aligning with the governments of the day, in return for empowerment of the estate Tamils.
Recalling his political contribution during the past decades, the speakers said the late Thondaman's approach to politics was an example of the ability to win political and economic rights through non-violent and democratic means.
The convention urged the Government to abandon its plans for a hydroelectric project at Kotmale, in the hill districts. While it welcomed the ongoing peace efforts, the CWC wanted Colombo to ensure that the final solution provided for ``adequate representation'' for the people of Indian origin.
A subsidy scheme for essential foodstuff to the estate workers, the appointment of Tamil-speaking officers to Government bodies, at least in the upcountry areas, and the introduction of a six-hour working day for women, were among the resolutions passed during the three-day convention.
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