By Binu Mathew*
Thousands of women gathered in front of the Kannan Devan Hills Plantations Company (P) Ltd (KDHP) office in Munnar are shouting this slogan in a dialect which is a mixture of Tamil and Malayalam in a low, slow rhythm. One woman sitting in the gathering of about 5,000 workers holds a placard which reads, “Green Blood Revolution, Strike Of the People, For the People, By the People.”
Munnar is a tea country, said to be the queen of hills of Kerala. Waves after waves of rolling mountains and hills covered with carpeted tea gardens are a beholders delight. Millions of tourists both domestic and foreign flock to this hill resort to enjoy this sight, the cool weather and breathe ‘fresh’ air. Very few realize that behind all this natural beauty there lies tears and tyranny, trauma and helplessness of workers who toil in these gardens from dawn to dusk.
On September 2, 2015, these tears turned into a flood of anger and that shook the very foundation of political structure of Kerala state, India. In Kerala, which boasts that it elected through the ballot, for the first time in the world, a communist party government to power, where everything from birth to death are unionized, emerges a workers’ movement, that too led by thousands of women, literally driving away trade union leaders, as they term it, “A Green Blood Revolution”. What is happening? Why this unique political movement?
Apparently, all they are asking for is Rs 500 daily wages and 20% annual bonus, which even if they get it will be around Rs 8000 ($140) only. But their grievances go beyond that. It is the story of the “Green Blood” flowing through the rivulets of these green plantations.
The KDHP general body held on August 16 announced that this year’s bonus will be 10%. From then onwards, resentment was simmering. Women workers, who are predominant in the 10,000 odd work force of the estates, started a whispering campaign through mobile phones. On September 5, some 50 women workers gathered in front of the KDH office and started the strike. Soon the word, spread around the hills and women workers gathered in hordes around the office. Soon they were in thousands. Men were kept away.
When we went to Munnar on September 12, it was day eighth of the strike. I could see about five thousand women sitting quietly in front of the KDH office. Occasionally there would be a burst of sloganeering. Then silence. There were hundreds of policemen surrounding the gathering. The police men, as is usual in protest and strikes, were not to threaten and disperse the crowd. They seemed, silently to support the strike. One police officer, even came forward to say that workers’ demands are genuine and should be widely reported.
It seemed that the whole of Munnar is in support of the strike. One shop owner where we had tea was eloquent in his support of the strike. Meals and tea are provided to the striking women by collecting funds from the shop owners, taxi drivers of Munnar. On the day of our arrival a temple committee provided free food for the striking women. One trader said, “If they earn Rs 1000 they spend it here in our shops for their basic needs. It is our duty to support them in their hour of need.”
Why is there so much support for these women, who are defying the trade unions who are supposed to protect their interest? The public feel that their grievances are genuine and they were betrayed by the trade unions.
A look at their salary slip will tell a bit of their plight. A worker’s basic pay is Rs 82.63 per day, with other allowances total daily wage is 250. That is, if they work 10 hours day, if they are late for work, they won’t allowed to work for the day, or if they leave early due to some illness or other necessities, hourly wages would be cut from this amount.
According to labour laws, they need to pluck only 20 kilograms of tea leaves a day. But they work over time, daily, every day of the week, from 6 am in the morning to 6 pm in the evening. However hard they work, they will be able to make Rs 300-350 per day. If they pluck up to 60 kg more than the legally required 20 kg, they will get Rs 36, if they pluck 100 kg a day, they will earn an over time of Rs 80. As food benefit, for three months, the company provides 75 kg of rice to each family. For this Rs 750 is cut from the salary each month.
When the total price is calculated, it is just about the market price and way more than the rice distributed by the government through public distribution system. Yearly, Rs 200 compulsorily and a voluntary wage of one day have to be paid to the union fund for representing the workers.
The houses they live are colonial style slave dwelling places. It has a kitchen and a one room which acts as living cum bedroom. A family of seven or eight people sleeps in this one room. Even when a son or daughter is married, they sleep in the same room with their parents and siblings. The roof of most of these houses is covered with asbestos, a carcinogenic material. The International Labour Organization passed “Asbestos Convention” in 1986, which has been ratified by 35 countries. The US Senate passed Ban Asbestos in America Act on October 4, 2007 unanimously. Asbestos is banned in Europe since January 1, 2005.
In fact, majority of the workers were brought from Tamil Nadu in colonial times as slaves, by the British when these hills were turned into tea plantations. Their living conditions or working conditions have not changed much since then. Swami Vel, a retired supervisor, said with guilt in his eyes, “now a Kankani is called a supervisor. But the work we do has not changed. We force them to pluck faster and faster. There are no such things as work breaks, even when they are having tea, they will be plucking tea leaves with the other hand. Women are not allowed take a break to urinate.”
This slave labour is taking a toll on the health of many of the woman workers. Constant leaning over the tea bushes to pluck the leaves have damaged the uteruses of many women workers and have been surgically removed, testified many strikers we talked to. Although, KDHP runs a general hospital in Munnar, the workers can avail only three days of free in patient treatment in the hospitals.
As for the men workers, the constant usage of pesticides like Roundup is causing severe health hazards. The World Health Organization in March termed Roundup as “probably carcinogenic”. The Forbes Magazine reported, “The decision was laid out in a new analysis in The Lancet Oncology, and published on the WHO’s International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) website. The analysis is based on the existing research on the chemical exposure in people and lab animals.”
Pesticide spraying is mostly done by male workers. One worker, who wanted to remain unnamed, said that a pesticide that is regularly used (he couldn’t specify the name of the pesticide) is mixed with oil and sprayed so that it sticks to the tea leaves. He says that it is so poisonous that he becomes giddy by 10 am in the morning after two hours of spraying. He showed us the burnt skin on his face developed from the fumes of this pesticide. Pesticides are heavily used in tea gardens, testified this employee. When it rains, these pesticides are washed downstream, and he said the drinking water of cities like Kochi (Cochin) is polluted with these poisons.
Coming back to the main demands of the strikers, the bonus issue is a tricky one. Technically, the workers are touted to be the owners of the estate. It was in 2005 that Tata Tea Ltd, then owners of KDH, decided to form as reported by Business standard on March 19, 2005, “17 of its leased tea estates to a separate company called Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Ltd (KDHP), which will be owned by the employees of the tea estates.”
Tata Tea Ltd which later became Tata Global Beverages Ltd. holds 28.52% of share. Another 8.95 % share is parked at KDHP Welfare Trust. Workers are said to hold about 60% of share of this company. V. Mariyappan, CITU (a trade union affiliated to Communits Party of India, Marxist) area president says that the actual decision making power is still wrest with TATA employees. “There are two representatives of workers in the director board, but they don’t know what’s really happening. They just come for the board meeting and drink tea and leave,” says Mariyappan.
Kannan Devan Hills in Devikulam Taluk comprising about 1,36,600 acres of land was given on lease on July 11, 1877 by the Poonjar Royal family to John Daniel Munroe to during the British Raj for an annual lease rent of Rs. 3,000 and a security deposit of Rs. 5,000. In 1964, the Tata Group entered into collaboration with Finlay which resulted in the formation of the Tata-Finlay Group. Although the lands and plantations were later resumed by the Government of Kerala by the Kannan Devan Hills (Resumption of Lands) Act, 1971, the government of Kerala is only a lessor and the lease amount still stays the same. Tata Tea Ltd was formed in 1983.
After forming KDHP giving ‘ownership’ of the company to its employees, Tata now controls over a million acres of government land for next to nothing! There are allegations that Tata has encroached upon thousands of acres of government and forest land. VS Achuthananthan of CPI (M) had vowed to get back all the encroached lands from Tata when he was the Chief Minister of Kerala. He couldn’t take back an inch of the land occupied by Tata.
As we enter Munnar, the first sign we see is a Tata board, “Trespassers will be prosecuted”. Tata is behaving like Munnar is their private property, although they are only holders of government land, that too for a paltry sum. There were beautiful places in Munnar we used to go, sit and relax. They were common places. Now these placed have been walled off by Tata and baton wielding security guards patrol the area. As they say, any trespassers will be prosecuted or would get a mouthful from the Tata security guard for encroaching upon their ‘private’ property. As a result, I don’t go to Munnar anymore, except for exceptional cases like this.
Now the question arises, where have the Trade Unions who should be protecting the workers’ right from the Corporate honchos gone? The workers allege that the trade unions took ‘three suit cases’ from the Management and betrayed them. They also released a list of 150 trade union leaders who received houses from KDHP Management. This list includes present MLA from the area S Rajendran, former MLAs A.K Mani and Sundara Manikyam, AITUC leader C.A Kurian, G. Muniyandi of INTUC.
To add insult to injury S Rajendran, MLA, reportedly said that Tamil terrorist groups are behind the workers’ agitation. On Friday, he was chased away by the striking workers when he tried to meet them. He jumped into a police vehicle and escaped. To assuage the workers’ anger, S Rajendran started a parallel hunger strike the next day asking the management to resolve the issue immediately. It is to be noted that no leaders, from the other two recognized unions, The Communist Party of India (CPI) affiliated AITUC, which is the leading union in the sector, and Congress affiliated INTUC so far have met the striking workers.
Revathy a worker from Laxmy Estate proudly raises her identity card and says, “Let the whole world see that we are not terrorists. We are only fighting for our rights.”
While talking the CITU leaders they say that their leaders have not accepted any largesse from the company management. But they concede that the other two union leaders have accepted houses from the company management. V Mariyappan, CITU area president said that the unions held three rounds of talks with the management to increase the bonus. The management didn’t relent. He says that all three unions have approached the High Court of Kerala to intervene in this issue.
Kanan Devan Hills and Plantations Private Limited said in a press release that any further changes in the salary and bonus can be decided only after the meeting of the management board. “The company is legally bound to give 8.33 per cent of the salary as bonus. However, we are now giving 10%. Any further change in that can be decided only after convening the board meeting,” company managing director Abraham Mathew said.
Swami Vel, the former Kankani supervisor, remembers the shooting down of two tea plantation employees of Pasumala estate in 1952. That strike was for the rightful rice, the employees were denied by the management. He fears that this strike too may have the similar fate unless the issue is not resolved at the earliest. The government, the KDHP management, and the trade union leaders have the responsibility to resolve the crisis and to ensure that the workers get justice. If that doesn’t happen, I fear, this ‘Green Blood’ revolution may turn Red. When you drink your morning tea tomorrow, look closely whether it has turned green, red or plain toxic.
Photos By Leons George