House Ownership for Plantation Workers


Providing decent house for the plantation community has in the pipe line of Owning a house is recognized as an important pillar of national identity. It is the duty of the state to encourage distribution of houses for people. Sri Lanka has a strong national policy on housing and thereby gained international recognition for which the United Nations (UN) declared a “shelter day” upon a request made by the Sri Lankan government. The prime objective of the national housing policy is to serve and ensure the right to live in an adequate, stable, qualitative, affordable, sustainable, environmental friendly and secure house with services for creating a high living standard fulfilling the timely needs of the people.

This paper is attempting to trace the mechanism adopted by the various stakeholders to implement the housing policy in Sri Lanka and how far it has reached the plantation community in Sri Lanka.

State Involvement in Housing

The Housing and Town Improvement Ordinance introduced by the colonial rulers in Sri Lanka in 1915 with the intention of guiding urban and local authorities to regulate and plan the building for development activities can be identified as the first state intervention in housing. Hence, state intervention in the housing development sector initiated based on the recommendations made by the housing sub-committee appointed by the government in 1952. A separate ministry for the subject of housing was appointed in 1953 and the establishment of the National Housing Department took place under the National Housing Act No. 37 of 1954. Subsequently amendments too were brought to the Rent Restriction Act. National Housing Fund was established the administration of which was handed over to the Commissioner for National Housing. The Commissioner for National Housing was directly involved with houses for low income groups which was supported by the construction agencies of the government. Few other developments that added to the housing policy in Sri Lanka were by way of statutory enactments namely, the National Housing Development Authority Act, Housing Rent (Amendment) Act, and Housing Development Finance Act in the 1970s.

It should be noted that Sri Lanka has introduced policies to upgrade the housing for low income groups in line with the concurrence of the first World Habitat Conference organized by the United Nations in 1976. This was a new experience to the housing sector in the country. The government also appointed a Task Force to conduct an in-depth study on the basic problems of housing in the country. Accordingly, the government provided several suggestions about the collective effort by the individual family to use the initial capital for the construction of a house. They also emphasized on the need for technical advice in rural areas where the need for housing is greater.

Taking in to consideration the development in human settlements in an urbanizing world adopted at the World Habitat Conference of the UN in 1996 and the Millennium Development Goals declared in 2000, the government of Sri Lanka has given priority to housing programs for vulnerable community groups within a framework of sustainable housing and human settlement development, especially the housing programmes for the rural segments including the estate communities as well. Subsequently, Mahinda Chinthana– the present government’s vision for the future also emphasized the need to provide every family with affordable shelter. The responsibility of realizing this housing goal of the government lies with the Ministry of Construction, Engineering Services, Housing and Common Amenities. Accordingly, the Ministry has initiated “Jana Sevana” housing programme providing one million houses with the intention of upgrading the existing informal houses in order to ensure sustainable human settlement development in the country.

The efforts made by various statutory bodies have significantly contributed for the housing conditions to improve in the rural as well as urban sectors in the country. However its outreach to improve the housing conditions of the plantation community is not admirable. The recent sample survey on Household Income and Expenditure Survey – 2009/10 by the Department of Census and Statistics in Sri Lanka reveals that nearly 89 percent of the people in Sri Lanka live in a single housing unit and the people occupying the slums or shanties have drastically reduced to and constitutes less than 1 percent. However, the national housing conditions does not exist in the estate sector and around 56 percent of the estate workers are still living in line rooms which was constructed by the British in the early 19th century. It should be noted that only 33.4 percent of the estate community have benefited through the expansion of housing conditions and living in the single housing unit in the plantation sector. The survey also reveals about the situation of the line rooms of the estate workers. Accordingly, around 50.7 percent of the estate households live in units made with less than 2 bed rooms whereas in the rural sector nearly 80 percent of the households have 2 or more number of bed rooms and high majority of them i.e. 47 percent, are living in the luxury of 3 or more number of bed rooms. ()The deviation of single housing unit between the rural and the estate community is a clear indicator of the living conditions where the estate workers are not on par with the rural community in the country. Nevertheless, house ownership of the estate workers is not comparable either with the rural or urban community in the country under any circumstances. Surprisingly, none of the estate houses are owned by the estate workers.

Rules for Estate Housing

It is important to note that the mechanism of provision of estate housing is not corresponding to that of the housing in the rural and urban sectors in the country. The obligations for the estate workers are not vested under the common rule of the country which is applicable only for the community living in the urban and rural areas in the country. The estate workers come within the purview of the Indian Immigrant Labour Ordinance which was introduced in 1923. Indeed, the ordinance have amended and consolidated to the Estate Labour (Indian) Ordinance of Sri Lanka. The section that regulates the housing in the plantation sector under the Estate Labour (Indian) Ordinance– section 24(1) prescribes that a single room cottage should be occupied by a family. Estate Quarters (Special Provisions) Act No. -2 of 1971 and article 27 (2), (C) of the constitution of Sri Lanka (1978) also recognize the right to adequate standards of living, including housing for the people in the country. Accordingly the provision of housing for the workers is the duty of the employer and not directly of the government. These provisions for housing is not only limited to the registered workers in the regional plantation companies and it has extended to the workers in the JEDB and SLSPC estates in the country. Moreover, the workers in the privately owned estates and smallholder properties which produce plantation crops such as tea, rubber and coconut are also entitled for the provision mentioned in the ordinance.

The dwellings provided for the estate workers by the employers are usually known as ‘coolie lines’ or ‘line rooms and it is ‘rent-free dwellings’ for them. The workers can use the rooms allocated by the employer as long as they stay in the estates.

The line rooms have a long history and the first line room was constructed by the British at the time of the opening of the coffee plantation during the 1840s. Most of the line rooms are still occupied by the majority of the tea and rubber workers in the country. The British writers E.C. Elliott and F.J.Whitehead in their publication titled ‘Tea Planting in Ceylon’ (1926) stated that ‘the line rooms were usually built in close proximity to a water supply irrespective of other conditions governing the choice of sites, and were in consequences, sometime badly situated from a health point of view’. The authors also went on to state that the Labour Ordinance did not lay down rules regarding the proper housing for coolies for the guidance of planters and in their absence there was little uniformity in design or in the materials used for the construction of line rooms. However, subsequently the line rooms were re-constructed based on the instructions provided by the government medical department of the country.

The dwelling which was constructed by the British was a row of rooms, each approximately 12 feet by 10 feet by 9 feet opening into long verandah. Clusters of such coolie line were situated at several places on the estates depending on their size. In line room construction little attention was paid to factors such as drainage, ventilation and toilets. The lack of proper drainage contributed to dirty environment around the workers line rooms. The floor of the line rooms on which the members of the family used to sleep, was hardened with a mixture of mud cowdung. This together with poor roofs and rooms without windows and doors contributed to making the line rooms gloomy, dismal and unhealthy (Wesumperuma 1986:232). The line room system was highly criticized by the Medical Officers and they reported about the dire state of drainage and roofs of the line rooms. Nevertheless their recommendations were not acted upon (Wesumperuma1986:233). Insanitation, ill-health, inadequate medical care, bad dwelling conditions are some of the difficulties faced by the workers, for which no remedy have been sought.

It could be estimated that around 18,500 line rooms were constructed by the British to accommodate roughly a total of 500,000 immigrant Indian Tamils to be settled in the country to supply labour for the plantation sector in the 1920s. Several rules were also implemented for the maintenance of line rooms. The rent free line rooms were provided with a sweeper to clean the drainage of the line rooms on a daily basis and the line rooms have to be white-washed every six months. Usually it is the employer (mostly the superintendent of the estate) who takes the decision of distribution of line rooms which will be implemented by the other staff like Kang in the respective estates.

Building of Housing for the Plantation Workers

Building of housing for the plantation workers was the center of criticism at the time of formulating the national plan for the independent Sri Lanka in the 1950s.The criticism was largely based on the provision of living space provided through the line rooms by the British to the plantation workers. It was found that line rooms were generally overcrowded, damp, smoky leading to enormous health issues such as respiratory illness, skin disease etc. amongst the plantation workers. After carefully discussing a gazette notification was issued (No.10168) in order to improve the housing for the estate workers in 1950. It stated that the single cottage type house should be constructed with an open veranda or an enclosed veranda, a living room, a back veranda and a kitchen as an alternative shelter for the estate workers. It also laid down in Rule 10 of Gazette that the vicinity must be clean of refuse and excreta and the line drains must be cleaned regularly. Thus, it was realized the urgent need for the improvement of housing for the plantation sector by the successive governments in the country. However, there is no evidence of construction of the houses as stipulated in the gazette notification.

Indeed, several changes have taken place in the administrative structure of the plantation sector. The British owned plantation sector was nationalized through the implementation of Land Reform Law of 1972 and 1975. The nationalized plantations were subsequently managed by the Janatha Estate Development Board (JEDB) and Sri Lanka State Plantation Corporation (SLSPC). The plantation sector which was categorized as non-viable estates were finally handed over to Upcountry Estate Development Board (UCEDB) and, some ad-hoc agencies which were subsequently created to run such plantations and then, later were used for the village expansion programme. The JEDB and SLSPC which managed the estate until the 1990s had taken over the responsibility for housing of the plantation workers. But they limited their activities to repairing, renovating and white washing of the line rooms. The JEDB and SLSPC could not bring profits from the plantation and finally the government decided for re-privatization.

The process of re-privatization was implemented in 1992. Accordingly, around 450 units of plantations were distributed to 23 Regional Plantation Companies (RPC) for 50 years of leasing to manage the estates. It should be noted that not only the JEDB and the SLSPC but also the RPC also initiated improve the housing conditions of the plantation workers. A number of institutions were also setup by the management of the plantations for the provision of housing for the workers. However, it has not improved up to the expected level of housing conditions in the estates.

A study was carried out by the Technical Assistance Team of the Social Welfare Program in 1994 amongst the estate workers and revealed that only 2 percent or about 3600 of the houses are in good condition and well maintained and another 18 percent or 32,100 could be rehabilitated with minor repairs. At the end of the study it was found that 4 percent of 7,100 houses were in such a dilapidated condition that they could not be repaired and therefore had to be demolished. The survey also revealed that 45 percent of the housing units were overcrowded in accordance with the currently accepted norms of 50Sq.Ft. per occupant and further 25 percent are only marginally better with 50 to 75 Sq. Ft. occupant. With regard to facilities, about 64 percent of the houses suffer from inadequate light and an equal percentage from poor ventilation. Only, 12 percent of the houses have electricity,62 percent of them were without latrines, 52 percent with no paved access path and 42 percent with no water source within 100 meters of the residence.

There are proposals for the provision of house ownership for the estate workers. Amongst them i) Estate Workers Housing Cooperative Societies (EWHCS) ii) the MahindaChintana, the Vision for Future Towards a New Sri Lanka of His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapakse iii) 4000 housing units for the estate workers out of 50,000 house for the Northern Districts by the government of Indian Housing Scheme are concentrating on the provision of own housing for the estate workers. As per The Asian Development Bank assisted plantation development project, housing loans are being provided to 6,000 families to construct their own houses. The maximum loan of Rs100,000 and Rs 145,000 worth of materials are given to the workers, and the technical support is provided by the Estate Workers Housing Cooperative Societies (EWHCS). It is said that the lease on the land would pass on to the workers from RPCs upon completion of the loan repayment at the end of ten years. Given the time constraints and lack of resources instead of replacing the existing barracks with individual plantation housing model, the project will continue the re-roofing of 11,000 line rooms to address the immediate problem of leaking roofs. In addition, the project will provide 150 common site services as required at the housing compounds. The project will also examine different options that can help improve sanitation, such as upgrading septic tanks and monitoring groundwater safety against bacterial contamination, and awareness programmes.

In the Mahinda Chintana, the Vision for Future towards a New Sri Lanka of His Excellency the President Mahinda Rajapakse, it has been stated: “One of my major goals is to make the plantation community a house owning society. Accordingly, instead of the present ‘line rooms’, every plantation worker’s family will be a proud owner of a new home with basic amenities by the year 2015. While a sum of Rs. 5 billion will be allocated annually for this purpose as part of the Government contribution, foreign financing will also be utilized for this project”. The proposal of constructing housing complexes with 50,000 housing units to replace poor quality housing available in the plantation sector was announced in the budget – 2014 speech of the president of this country in the month of November 2013. The construction of these houses with sanitation and other utilities will require considerable engineering supervision. It is also proposed to float a US$ 750 million long-term international bond for the construction of urban and estate housing complexes through the Urban Development Authority which will be backed by a Government Guarantee, along with a further US$ 750 million for the Government to finance counterpart funds required for various development projects.

Several efforts have been made to provide a separate house for each worker’s family since 1950. The plantation sector housing program was considerably successful in the districts of Galle and Matara in the southern region of the country. This program was thereafter expanded to other plantation districts of Ratnapura, Kegalle and Kandy. However, it has not sufficiently reached the districts of Nuwara Eliya and Badulla which are the major residential areas of the plantation workers, to date. Ironically, all attempts to provide the plantation workers with proper housing reached only a few plantation workers.

Housing Conditions

The Department of Census and Statistics and the sample survey carried out by the Central Bank of Sri Lanka reveal the following information about the conditions of housing distributed in the urban, rural and estate sector in the country. Table I give the data of type of ownership in the urban, rural and estate sector from 1986 to 2003.

According to Table 1 more than 80 percent of the Sri Lankans are privileged to occupy their own households. The Consumer Finance and Social Economic Survey also give the distribution of the ownership of houses in the urban, rural and estate sector from 1986/87 to 2003/04. Accordingly, the urban and rural communities are more privileged with possessing of ownership of houses whereas, only 1.74 percent of the estate community possessed own houses in 1986/87 and increased up to 21.5 percent in 2003/04. The trend of possessing the ownership of the estate house made a significant progress after 1980s. The progress of distribution of own houses could be happened in the privately owned estates and not in the large scale estates in the survey.

The Table 2 gives the information about the progress taken place in the housing conditions in the urban, rural and the estate sectors in the country between 2006/07 and 2009/10.

It is clear that more than 80 percent of the houses in the urban and rural sectors have done the re-roofing and toilets are available for their own use. Moreover, more than 80 percent have connections with electricity. However, the estate houses are privileged with less than half of the facilities used by the rural community in the country. It should be noted that, there are several organizations including the trade unions and the political parties involved in distribution of roofing materials for the workers in the line rooms for the last several decades but it has reached only 22.2 percent of the estate workers during 2006/07 and declined to 23 percent during 2009/10. It should be noted that the re-roofing was one of the major projects of renovation of the line rooms and number of other organization were also involved in re-roofing activities in the estates. The Medium Term Investment Programme (MTIP), Social Welfare Programme I & II, (SWP I&II) and Plantation Development Programme (PDP) have also contributed for the re-roofing activities but their intervention fell far short of actual demand (National Plan of Action 2006-15:49).

Indeed, distribution of individual toilets has been significantly increased and only around 25 percent of the people are not privileged with the individual toilet facilities. Supply of electricity also made good progress between the survey periods of 2006/07 and 2009/10. But it should be noted that around 40 percent of the estate workers do not have access to safe water. Thus, the above information shows that the housing conditions of the estate workers are significantly lower than the rural sector in the country in many aspects.

In order to improve the housing conditions of the estate workers several arrangements were made. The Plantation Housing & Social Welfare Trust (PHSW) which was established in 1992 not only had the vision of improving the condition of housing, but also to facilitate programmes to enhance the quality of life of plantation workers under the Companies Act No 17 of 1982. The organization was later re-named as the Plantation Human Development Trust (PHDT) in 2002. The PHDT is a Tripartite Organization consisting of the Government of Sri Lanka , RPC and plantation Trade Unions, formed to co-ordinate and facilitate programmes to enhance the quality of life of plantation workers.

According to a statement of PHDT in 2006, … still repairing line rooms in the plantations and expected to construct over 193,000 houses for plantation workers within the next 8 years. According to Sunil C. Perera, Asian Tribune (Feb, 2006), “if the government starts its housing project, all plantation workers will receive single houses within a short period”. However, all these proposals and the amendments influenced the conversion of 33 percent of the residents of the line room in to single unit houses and it took almost half a century to reach this level.

The current PHDT programme has the mandate to handover the ownership of plantation housing to the respective occupants after he/she has paid the bank loan of Rs.100,000 within the stipulated period of ten years. However, those who settled the loan by paying the rate of Rs.675/= per month for last 25 years to the bank have not yet provided with the ownership of the house. Evidence could be derived from the tea plantation workers particularly from the Mayfield Estate from Kotagala in the district of Nuwara- Eliya for this situation.

Minutely discussed development program for the plantation community was the ‘National Plan of Action for Social Development of the Plantation Community 2006 – 2015’. This programme was prepared by the Ministry of Estate Housing, Infrastructure & Community Development with the patronage of UNDP. Every issue had been thoroughly gone into at the preparation stage of the report. It was projected to provide 200,000 units of new housing in the plantation sector. It was also proposed that 20,000 houses per year are to be rebuilt or newly constructed. The plan was estimated to cost Rs. 13,571 million for the construction of 60,000 houses in 2008. However, the plan was not implemented. The major reason for such situation has been the non-existence of the Ministry of Nation Building and Estate Infrastructure Development in the present government.

Sri Lanka has ample proof provided by the successive governments during last four decades for the provision of ownership of houses for the rural community in the country. However, the national housing programme providing housing facilities with ownership for the plantation workers has not reached to the anticipated level.

Ownership of Estate Housing

The successive governments after independence have introduced several programmes and ensured the ownership of their dwellings to be reached to the large masses living in the rural and urban community As we mentioned above 95.6 percent of the rural community is living in their own houses. Surprisingly, none of the estate houses are owned by the estate workers. Indeed, the housing projects of the country also received an international recognition for which a ‘shelter day’ was declared by the UN on the request made by the government of Sri Lanka. This is despite that fact that housing projects have not sufficiently reached the estate workers in the country. There was an attempt to distribute certificates of ownership to the estate workers during the election campaign in the proximity of Thalawakelle during 1994. These ownership certificates were distributed during the election meeting and it was withdrawn immediately after the election.

Certainly, most of the efforts have been made to improve the conditions of the estate housing from the day the country achieved independence to date but it has improved only 33 percent of houses in the estates. Thus, the rest (around 56 percent) still live in the same old line rooms in the estates. The recent survey on Household Income and Expenditure Survey 2009/10 shows that around 8.8 percent of the estate workers are living in the attached houses and 1.3 percent of them are living in the shanties.


The prime objective of the national housing policy is to give effect to the right to live in a sustainable environment in order to create a high living standard. The dwellings provided for the estate workers by the employers are usually known as ‘coolie lines’ or ‘line rooms ‘and it is rent-free dwellings’ for them. The workers can use these rooms allocated by the employer as long as they stay in the estates. The efforts made by various statutory bodies significantly contributed for the housing conditions in the rural and urban sectors in the country to prosper but such endeavors have not sufficiently reached to improve the housing conditions of the plantation community. Therefore, at least now a feasible and workable plan has to be implemented to address the housing issue of the plantation workers so that in the near future they also can be owners of houses as the urban and rural counterparts in Sri Lanka. (By Dr. A.S.Chandrabose:)

Major References

Central Bank of Sri Lanka, (2005), The Consumer Finances and Socio Economic Survey Rep
2003/04, Part I, Colombo.

Chandrabose, A.S.&Sivapragasam, (2011), Red Colour of Tea , Central Issues That Impact the
Tea Plantation Community in Sri Lanka, HDO, CCFD, France.

Department of Census and Statistics, Household Income and Expenditure Survey-2009/10,
Ministry of Finance and Planning, Colombo.

Elliott, E.C., & Whitehead, F.J., (1926), Tea Planting in Ceylon, Hull, Blyth & Co., Ltd., Times
Building, Colombo.

Ministry of Estate Infrastructure and Livestock Development, National Plan of Action (NPA) for
Social Deployment of the Plantation Community (2006-2015)

Wesumperuma, D., (1986), Indian Immigrant Plantation Workers in Sri Lanka: A Historical
Perspective 1880-1990, Vidyalangara Press, Kelaniya.

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