House no 18 at Dunkeld Estate Upper Division was bustling. A group of elderly males were attending to a Hindu custom-preparation of a kumbam with mango leaves, coconut and rice. It needs to be taken to the kovil to be blessed and placed back near the doorway, they say. Walking in and out of the house are females, both young and old -dressed in sequin studded sari or shalwar with puttu on their forehead. Teenagers assisted by elders decorate the house with balloons and crepe paper while a young girl was constantly trying to wipe out with a cloth, the dust and dirt coming inside the house through the constant movements.
This is the house of the 30 year old Subramanium Puwaneswaran a couple of hours before he was to move into the brand new house built for him by the Merrill J. Fernando Charitable Foundation in the Upper Division of the Dunkeld Estate.
August 11 was an occasion for celebrations for those living in the Dunkeld Estate Upper Division as it marked the official opening of the 21 permanent housing units built for the estate community. The ceremony also saw the inauguration of the foundation built Créche/the Child Development Centre where the children of the estate workers under the age of five, will receive education, care and nourishment, totally free of charge while their parents are at work. The newly refurbished kovil in the upper division was also handed over to the community on that day.
|Dilmah Founder Merrill J. Fernando with the former Governor General of New Zealand Sir Anand Satyanand|
The beneficiaries accompanied by their family and friends flocked to the venue for the grand opening. Some lined up near the kovil with garlands in their hands to welcome the guests while there were others who attended to the last minute preparations at the kovil.
The new housing -two bedroomed units with living, kitchen areas and individual toilets offer a new lease of life for 21 estate families – most of them being extended families; some newly married, who were hitherto living in deplorable conditions, confined to single roomed line houses of their parents. They now have a permanent place of their own; newly built and more spacious.
Subramanium Puwaneswaran; a worker at the estate tea factory is the beneficiary of house no 18. He is excited that his wife and the two little daughters are finally getting a place of their own; five years after their marriage.
“We were at our parents’ house all these years. There were 10 of us living in the house -my parents, sisters, my wife and the two kids. We had to manage with one room. It was so difficult; especially when there are small kids. When my kids start crying in the night, the whole house is awake. That is how we suffered all these years. So I can not thank enough for getting this house,” he says.
For Puwaneswaran’s father, Muniyan Subramanium, August 11 is going to be a memorable day in his life -to see his son and his family getting a place of their own-the house that Muniyan dreamt of building for his son when he was getting married, although he could not fulfill his obligation due to the financial hardships he faced, informs an emotional Muniyan.
Ever since their marriage one and half years ago, Gnanaprakasam Nalaka 28 ( a tea plucker in the estate) and his wife 24 Kanakam dreamed of having a place of their own where they could make a perfect environment for their family someday.
“I can not believe this. I am so happy. I stitched new curtains and we got some new furniture to come into this house,” says Kanakam while her husband informs they would get down the priest from the Church to bless their humble abode, before they move in.
Like Nalaka and his wife, there were many happy families who moved into their houses observing religious customs.
In a house adjacent S. Thiyagarajah (aged 49) and his wife Annamali Puwaneswari who works in the créche at the estate were seen hanging mango leaves on the roof at the doorway. This is to seek God’s blessings for the new house, the couple informs.
“We suffered a lot living in our old line houses. The roof was leaking. There was not enough space. When we get visitors we put them in neighbourhood houses at nights,” the couple informs as they struggle to weave a few sentences in Sinhala.
What it means to have a decent place of living; a permanent roof over their heads – they are unable to express much in words due to the language barrior. Instead, their gratitude is shown through humble smiles with which they greet the special guests who came for their house opening – the Dilmah Founder Merrill J. Fernando, his son Malik Fernando and the Dilmah global partners.
Meanwhile the newly opened Créche cum the Child Development Centre built and run by the Foundation enables young mothers working in the estates to engage in their work with peace of mind. Run by three trained staff members, this Child Development Centre; well-equipped and spacious, has facilities to accommodate around 31 children at any given time.
According to Sennaiyah Gnanaprakasam, an estate worker who has been living there for 40 odd years, infants of the workers were earlier either left with their old grand parents or kept in dilapidated créche in the line room. “There was a lady who took care of the kids at this small room. It did not have any facilities and they received no food or care like they do now.”
K. Sivamani, is a young mother of three employed in the estate.
“My husband works in Colombo and comes home only during weekends or holidays. My elder son and daughter are schooling, so there is no issue in taking care of them. But I have a one and half year old baby. If not for the Day Care facility here I would not have been able to go to work since there is no one at home to look after him,” says Sivamani adding that knowing that her child is in safe hands while she is away, is a big burden off her shoulder.
The Upper Division project opening marks the completion of the second phase of a series of initiatives carried out by the Foundation to holistically develop the estate since Dilmah acquired full ownership of the property, few years back. The development projects conducted over the years include facilitation of basic amnesties needed for the estate workers such as housing, health centre with accesses to free medical treatment for small ailments, créche and the child development centres. The foundation has also assisted the Government school in the estate where most of the estate children go for their secondary education by providing an IT lab and water connection.