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Sri Lanka’s new bishop to focus on tea workers' plight

Bishop-elect Jude Nisantha Silva of Badulla says poverty and lack of rights plague plantation workers

Bishop-elect Jude Nisantha Silva of Badulla in Sri Lanka addresses a gathering in this undated photo

Bishop-elect Jude Nisantha Silva of Badulla in Sri Lanka addresses a gathering in this undated photo. (Photo: dioceseofbadulla.org)

Published: February 01, 2023 06:16 AM GMT

Updated: February 01, 2023 07:43 AM GMT

A new Sri Lankan bishop says he will focus his ministry on inter-religious dialogue and issues affecting tea plantation workers, a legacy of British colonial days that made the South Asian nation one of the world's top four tea producers.

Bishop-elect Jude Nisantha Silva of Badulla, said inter-religious dialogue in his multi-ethnic diocese in the lower central hills region is a key issue as are those of tea plantations, as they contribute 20 percent to the economy of Badulla, which also serves as the capital city of Uva Province.

Pope Francis on Jan. 30 named Father Silva, director of the Uva Socio-Economic and Community Development Center as the new bishop of Badulla, known for its marginalized tea plantations workers, who eke out a living on less than US$2.67 per day.

"The current economic crisis in the country has a severe impact on plantation workers.... They used to eat three meals a day, but now it is limited to one meal," said 52-year-old Bishop-elect Silva.

It is more than 200 years since tea workers were brought to Sri Lanka from India, but we failed to provide them with even their basic rights, he observed.

He said that the majority of the people in the diocese are suffering from extreme poverty.

Migrant Indian workers from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu were brought to Sri Lanka by the British in the 1820s as the highlands lacked cheap workers. Thousands of expatriate qulis (workers) arrived and by the turn of the century, 7 percent of Sri Lanka’s population comprised plantation workers from India.

More than 52 percent of plantation workers in Sri Lanka are landless women. Though with branding and marketing, the value of the end product is high, workers in Sri Lanka are placed at the bottom of the value chain.

Coupled with lengthy power cuts, fuel shortages and soaring inflation, the Sri Lankan tea industry is passing through a “near total breakdown", according to plantation associations.

In the first quarter of last year, tea production fell 15 percent — its lowest since 2009. Workers in Sri Lanka produce 300 million kilograms of tea annually as the island nation is predominantly an orthodox tea producer.

Nilani Fernando from Badulla diocese said the new bishop would be an asset to the missionary Church.

"The majority of the people are suffering from extreme poverty in the diocese and they hope the newly appointed bishop will address their issues," said Fernando, a teacher, who added that farmers in the diocese have also fallen on hard times.

The yield from paddy cultivation may fall by 50 percent this season, due to rice yellowing. However, the authorities have failed to provide proper solutions, she said.

Bishop-elect Silva was born on May 5, 1970, in Moratuwa near the capital Colombo. He was ordained a priest on Oct. 2, 2001. Earlier, he was a judicial vicar and director of a diocesan Caritas.

His ordination and installation will be held on April 22 at St.Mary's Cathedral in Badulla diocese, which has 22,000 Catholics in 19 parishes out of a total local population of 1,651,000. 

Bishop-elect Silva said he hopes to work with Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim leaders to pave the way for interfaith harmony in the diocese.

"I hope to build interfaith committees represented by religious leaders and lay people in all parishes of the diocese," he told UCA News after the Vatican’s announcement.

He said that the Church needs the support of other religions to continue its work.

The diocese was  established in 1972. Bishop D. Leo Nanayakkara, O.S.B, and Bishop J. Winston S. Fernando, SSS, were its former prelates.


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