In the face of eviction, Penang plantation residents hope for intervention

Unless there is timely intervention on the part of the government or other agencies, there is great likelihood of the eviction of 23 families and the destruction of temples in Ladang Sungai Kecil, Nibong Tebal, Penang.

Ladang Sungai Kecil ((LSK) is a short distance from Nibong Tebal, in the southern district of Sebarang Perai Selatan (SPS).

SPS is not as developed as the other four districts in Penang but, with the establishment of an industrial zone in Batu Kawan, the future looks bright for the district as a whole.

There are not many plantations left in Penang, with most having been sold and some acquired by the state for commercial and industrial development.

LSK is about 2.4 ha and surrounded by Malay kampungs. I am not sure how many times the ownership of this estate has changed in the past. Perhaps the land was part of a larger plantation in the past.

The workers have been staying in their quarters for generations although many have left to seek greener pastures. Presently, 23 families are left on the estate but they are employed elsewhere.

Before the new owner purchased the plantation, the workers were able to buy their existing quarters from the former owner. They have documents to prove this transaction, a deal not honoured by the new owner.

Eviction notices were issued to the households about two years back. The families were left with no choice but to engage their own lawyers to contest the eviction on grounds that the houses belong to them and that they are entitled to reasonable compensation or alternative land to rebuild their houses.

There are two big Hindu temples with a number of small shrines – a testimony to the history and struggle of the Tamil workers in this area.

If the owner wins his legal case, there is real possibility of not only eviction of the families, who have many school going children, but the destruction of the places of worship as well.

This is why the Penang Hindu Endowments Board (PHEB), an agency of the state government, is also a party challenging the eviction notice. PHEB wants the temples to be protected as they have been placed under its jurisdiction.

The workers have not been unreasonable. Through the representation of the PHEB and their lawyers, attempts have been made to amicably settle the matter.

The PHEB is even willing to buy the land to protect the families and the temples.

However, the owner is adamant on the question of eviction. He has been sending his agents to the plantation daily to convey the message that it is a matter of time before tractors and heavy machinery are sent to demolish their dwellings and the temples.

It is alleged that the owner had said on one occasion that “even Ramasamy can’t save the families from the destruction of their homes and temples”.

The plantation land with its structures composed of quarters and temples was bought by the present owner for a low price of about RM1 million recently. Considering the land price in Penang, the price paid was not significant at all.

Once the structures are removed and families evicted, there is a chance that the owner might be able to sell the land at least 10 to 15 times the cost value to prospective developers in the area.

There is a possibility that the land could be sold to a prospective developer for the future development of a township.

It is unfortunate that there is no federal or state legislation to protect the rights of workers and their families facing the prospect of eviction.

There is no alternative land or house ownership scheme or even a reasonable compensation.

Apart from placing their hopes on their lawyers, the families are praying there might be some form of divine intervention to put a stop to their dilemma.

P. Ramasamy is deputy chief minister II of Penang.

The views expressed are those of the writer and do not necessarily reflect those of FMT.