For many Sri Lankan refugees in India, life is a daily struggle
The political deadlock in Sri Lanka and its effects on relations with India are overshadowing the hardship of thousands who have left the island to start a new life.
''A great deal of noise is made by politicians about what is happening in Sri Lanka, but not so much is heard about the terrible sufferings of the thousands of Indian Tamils who have come across to India,'' says A. N. Appavoo, general secretary of the United Front Federation for Repatriates in the south Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Mr. Appavoo has worked for 11 years in Tamil Nadu assisting Indian Tamils who have left Sri Lanka.
''They are people with no power of their own and with very few friends to help them,'' he says.
A typical example is Perumal Ramasamy, a former laborer on a tea estate. He, his wife, and four children were offered a job, with government sponsorship, on a coffee plantation. But they could not endure the arduous conditions and asked for a change of job.
Because they did not stay with their first job, they were no longer eligible for a government grant. They were not given another job and were left to fend for themselves. Mr. Ramasamy left his family to seek work on another estate. He came to the town of Trichy to seek help from the Federation for Repatriates.
To provide himself with food for a week, Mr. Ramasamy was forced to sell off some of his and his family's belongings: He got the equivalent of $12 for his wristwatch and a pair of his daughter's earrings.
Despite such hardship, he was tidy and neatly dressed. He explains, ''There is a proverb in the Tamil language which states: 'Even if you have only rags you must wash them!' I still have my soul, my dignity, and my hope.''
He will also need courage. It may take a long time to get another job.
The Indian Tamils, who form some 5 percent of Sri Lanka's 14 million population, are descended from the people who were recruited by the British in the 19th century to work on the island's tea, coffee, and rubber plantations.
They were and are a race apart, living and working in conditions of misery and hardship. They did not have Sri Lankan citizenship, and many wanted to go to India, which they regarded as their motherland.
Some 451,000 repatriates have been accepted by India under the agreements of 1964 and 1974, which stipulated that up to 600,000 stateless people of Indian origin in Sri Lanka would be accepted by India. In return Sri Lanka promised to grant citizenship to some 400,000 stateless people of Indian origin over a period of 15 years.
The journey from Sri Lanka to India across the Palk Strait is arduous. The repatriates are taken to the port of Talaimannar in northern Sri Lanka. For many this involves an overnight train journey in crowded compartments.
From the train they are transferred to the Ramanujam ferry, which is more than 50 years old and has seen better days. The Indian Tamils are confined in the cramped lower deck. Off the Indian port of Rameswaram they are brought to shore by ancient wooden lighter-boats.
Once on land they undergo lengthy bureaucratic procedures in blinding heat. Then they are transferred to Mandapam repatriate camp before being dispatched to other centers.
Ironically, Mandapam camp was built as a staging post by the British in the last century to accommodate Indian Tamils on their way to the Sri Lankan plantations.
Mr. Appavoo at the Federation for Repatriates - which is funded partly by a West German agency and partly by the London-based Christian Aid - comments:
''Only about 10 percent of the repatriates do well over here. Most of the others end up in varying degrees of misery.... It is high time that more attention was given to the repatriates' problems. These have been dragging on, and the position is getting steadily worse. These are the forgotten people.''
One imaginative program to help repatriates develop new work skills so they can compete in a tough job market is organized by the Church of South India. Courses in tailoring, carpentry, and motor mechanics are held in the repatriate camps at Mandapam and Trichy. But the number of training places is limited.