In Colombo’s shanty towns, Tamils are more concerned about daily needs than the struggle for independence. Nina de la Preugne meets the Tamils for whom Eelam won’t pay the bills.
The walls vibrate as the train passes along the shanty town in Colombo’s suburban Narahenpita district. The small strip of land is crammed with poorly built houses, where Tamil families of up to ten people often live in one room.
Most of the people here were born in this shanty town, and only a few elders recall the reason they migrated here in the 1980s – to escape the violence in the North. The younger generations do not know of the war; to them it is disconnected from the everyday struggle to find enough to eat and pay the rent.
“We want a correct solution for us. We want to live together and get a good freedom and human rights,” says Damorasingan, 65, who is originally from Jaffna. “But you see where I am living, my lane. We are facing issues here. It is not only the Tamil (ethnicity), it is the shanty town. That is the main problem.”
Although few people speak of outright discrimination against Tamils, several question the government’s attitude towards the minority, especially the older generations.
“I had an accident and was not treated at the hospital. They did not say but I think because I am a Tamil, they could not be bothered to help. The government is not looking after Tamils properly,” says an elderly man.
Several men gathered in a group had injuries that had not been taken care of at the public hospital. H Jaladmalay, 32, had an open wound looking worryingly deep and infected.
“The government hospital did not admit me, they said you have to go home.” For him, his wound means he cannot work and provide for his family.
The men were divided on the reasons for their lack of access to healthcare. Some said it was because of the lack of expertise and the overcrowding; others spoke of not being able to afford the bribes to doctors or of racism towards Tamils.
Prices before rights
For the majority of the shanty town’s inhabitants, the main issues are basic needs. Prices went up dramatically in recent months and life has become tougher as salaries have not kept up.
Managing to get by is now a daily struggle, and women in particular are worried about the future.
“It is ok for now, but if things stay the same for too long, it will be damaging for my children’s health. I cannot give them proper food every day, and medicines are too expensive,” says Catherine Pakian, 28.
It is with this kind of problem in mind that Catherine and many other went to the poll last week for the parliamentary elections.
Several indicated that they voted for the ruling party. “The president is good. I hope the government will improve life. I voted for the government,” says K Jabadmalamay.
However, most of their votes went to independent political movements in hope of a positive change.
Nadarajah, a 30-year-old man who has been living in the shanty town all his life, says he does not feel discriminated against because he is a Tamil, but voted for a Tamil party nonetheless:
“The government will not change anything for us; we have to take care of ourselves. The prices went up and there is no way for me to make savings. Even in a shanty town like here, I have to pay a rent. Whoever is helping us, we will support. I voted for a Tamil party this time, Mano Ganesan’s party.”
Dr N Kumaragurupan, the secretary general of the Democratic People’s Front, a party founded by himself and Mano Ganesan to defend Tamils’ rights in the west of the country, points out that many of the Tamils living in the shanty towns are too focused on their own economic problems to be able to worry about political issues such as reconciliation or self-determination.
“If you are unable to take care of yourself properly, then political self-determination is the least of your worries. Not helping these people is also a way of subduing them for the government,” he says.
Whether the government is deliberately not helping Tamils in the shanty towns is debatable, but people do feel they cannot rely on anyone else.
M Mardani, a 50-year-old woman, voted for the ruling party but is unconvinced it will bring the changes she hopes for:
“I am not sure whether something will come. We are in for ourselves. We are not affected by the discrimination because we are in Colombo, although I know some places are. But what can we do?”
Posted in The Samosa