Housing in the hill country


By Ashley de Vos

The British Plantation Enterprise allocated the least usable land for housing the estate labour on the plantations. The best and easily accessible lands were reserved for their future bungalows and for the precious Coffee and Tea.

The workers who were later housed in basic single room terrace structures, referred to as line rooms, were certainly better offthan, the lack of any accommodation in the first decades of the enterprise. Where ill clothed ragged plantation slaves dressed in only a span cloth to cover their nakedness cuddled by hastily lighted fires in the less windy pockets of the land. They were fed on gruel and water coming off the streams on the land.The ‘Kambili’ introduced later in the history of the enterprise was used continuously till about the 1980’s.This crudely woven ‘Kambili’ akin to a turned in bag made of jute worn over the head of a worker was issued as the only protection from the intense cold in the cloud forests.

The useful life span of a plantation slave was one month. They were regarded as dispensable and thousands died on the road, as they were walked from Arrippu to the highlands. Many more thousands continued to die on the land they worked hard to develop, ridding the land of the trees in the black leech infested cloud forests. They worked from early morning till sunset, cutting the trees and the undergrowth, while their supervisors formed hunting parties to kill every elephant in sight.Thousands of elephants were killed, to rid the highland forests of what the British enterprise referred to as pests, at a shilling a tail.

Many of the early plantation supervisors were hardy Scots who had experienced and were used to the cold conditions in their home country and able to survive the cold wind blowing up their kilts. They sheltered in mud huts with thatched roofs, a far cry from the cosy bungalows we see as remnants of the later plantation era. Usually these houses were located hidden away from a direct view of the worker community. 

When the estates were owned by the original owners, the topography was carefully studied and in time they had a good understanding of the movement of rain water over their fields. Having studied the holistic picture they organised the necessary drains and the disposal systems for the rain water to be channelled to existing water ways and streams. The stream beds were purposely forested to ensure continued water security. This water was then carried and channelled to the rivers further downstream. The original line rooms used little water and washing and bathing was at the streams that flowed in a systematic manner across the land. It was a time when small Pelton wheel driven generators produced the necessary electrical power to run the factories.

Many of these stone lined drains and disposal systems are still visible, some still working, some disturbed and recently dammed for agricultural purposes, while others have had the stones cannibalised for other uses,encouraging and permitting the rain water to find its own way down to the lower levels. This intensifies extensive soil erosion, earth slips andsubsequent flooding at the lower levels.

This present rush to build houses for estate workers and those affected by the present landslides, all citizens of this country, should be handled with care. Only a few houses,say a maximum of ten,suitably spaced should be built on any one spot.Building a large concentration of housing units in a single location, also involves depositing large volumes of water emanating from bathing and domestic chores via cess pits, septic tanks and soakage pits into the already fragile ground,and that on a very regular basis,this could support and trigger off earth slips.Valleys and stream beds,should be avoided as potential building sites, infact, they should never be selected. Some lands that are visually flat have streams flowing under at lower levels, if disturbed the whole would move.

Primarily, the land should be tested free of slip planes, and the site freed by the NBRO before permission for construction is granted.It is not only the stability of the land per say that needs to be addressed, but the long term effect of the physical ingress of domestic water into the ground, should be of equal concern.The construction should be handled by profession contractors experienced in working on hill slopes, contractors who understand the dynamics of slope theory and are willing to respect it.

Unfortunately in Sri Lanka, where everyone including the political entity from the affected area is a pseudo expert,it requires even more careful study, as most politicians prefer to maintain the voter base in their allocated area, however unsafe, rather than loose it to another.

Please think again, this is to do with the present and future safety of human lives. Hence, these people who are no more slaves should be housed on land safe and free of earth slips. The disposal of water from the houses, underground springs and natural rain falling on the ground needs to be understood and studied with a special effort taken to guarantee a final safe disposal of this runoff. This needs professional expertise and serious long term study. Unless this is addressed in a holistic manner, we will continue to loose lives and experience landslides.

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