Translated Saturday 26 September 2015, by
On finding out about the women plantation workers’ strike in Munnar, I was extremely intrigued by many factors. One has heard of many womens’ agitations in Kerala especially in relation to the coir and cashew workers’ struggles. However in the recent past, one has begun to see women in Kerala as a passive group who are more interested in pongalas ( religious festivals) or organizing Kudumbasree ( women’s self-help groups) units. I decided to go and see for myself what is happening in Munnar and Suriyanelle.
In an all too short trip to these places that I made over the past weekend, I was able to attend a meeting being held by women representatives of seven estates in Munnar and spend a morning with women agitating outside the Harrisons Malayalam factory in Upper Suriyanelle. The Sunday morning I reached Munnar, the town was just waking up. Tell-tale signs of last week’s agitation was there for all to see – a poster hanging from a lamp post outside the KDHP office, flex boards congratulating the women and most importantly the towns people who seemed to rejoice in the victory won by the women. I spoke to Ms. Lissie Sunny who informed me that several women from different estates would be meeting in the Merchant’s Association hall at 1 pm. However it was a meeting for the workers. I said I would stay outside then and wait to meet her and the leaders after the meeting got over. However, when I reached there the meeting was in full swing, the hall was packed with about 400 women including young women and children. The hall was surrounded by a police force fit to storm a bastion. The media was surrounding the speakers on the podium with huge TV and still cameras. In such a situation, I felt I too could walk in and hear what was being said inside. I inched my way to the front. Both the speakers Ms. Lissie Sunny and Ms. Gomathy Augustine addressed the audience in Tamil. Lissie seems like the older of the two and more reserved. Gomathy is young, articulate with a ready smile. A third leader Indrani was missing due to illness. The women and their leaders connect spontaneously. Lissie said that she did not mind dying for this cause. The women attending the meeting were representatives of the various KDHP estates who had been chosen to attend this meeting. A back and forth discussion went on about various issues including five of their representatives attending the PLC meeting in Tiruvananthapuram on September 26th. Gomathy spoke about women in KDHP plantations in Silent Valley whose pay had been cut on the days they went on strike. Also about a young man named Manoj who supported their meetings and was now being harassed by his employees in the Engineering Department. The two leaders had all the support of the women workers. They trusted them. They showered them with their love and affection.
Somewhere during all of this a man came from outside a window asking for my name and phone number. He claimed to be a plainclothes police man. I checked with the other media people standing around me and found that information from them too had been collected. This was most disturbing and shocking. Here is a group of women who are trying to organize and strategise. But they do not have a private space to do it. It is all being conducted under media glare and the surveillance of the police and their undercover agents.
I found that the leaders and the women here are slowly groping to find an alternate space and politics. While they feel very let down by the male dominated trade unions, they also say that they will not go against them if these unions work for them. They plan to continue with their Pembila Orumai gatherings till they return from the PLC before deciding whether they want to form their own trade union.
Next morning I took a long and winding road to the Upper Suriyanelle Estate, more than an hour away from Munnar through some breathtakingly beautiful scenery. My auto driver pointed out the various resorts that had been knocked off during VS’s government. However many new ones have sprung up along the way. We kept seeing women dressed in bright saris on their way to the strike. I gave a lift to Visakham ( name changed ) and her grand daughter. Visakham is the fourth generation in her family who has worked on the plantations. She is supporting the strike because she wants to have better living conditions for all of them including her four year old granddaughter. When we reached there, more than 300 women from five estates were assembled outside the factory gates. They have been here for the past eight days. A young woman with a mike shouted Inquilab Pembila Orumai. The women repeated. Inquilab AITUC. Inquilab CITU. Inquilab INTUC. Thozhilali aikam Zindabad. The women repeated after each slogan. The young woman sang,’ Paniyeduppathu naangalu / kollayeduppathu neengalu ( We work / You exploit ) Kolunthukutta edukkathu naangalu / panakkutta amukkathu neengalu ( We carry bags of tea/ You hoard bags of money) Potta layangal naangalkku / AC bungalow ungalkku ( Old stables for us / AC bungalows for you ). The women sang after her. There were fluttering red flags, posters of AITUC and INTUC and the male leaders who had surrounded the gathering waiting for their turn to speak. In Surianelle , the women are not breaking off from their unions. At least not yet. That could be because no able leadership has sprung up here yet which can steer the women in that direction. Or because the unions here have realized that it is foolish to let go of the women and are doing their best to support them and take up their cause. I sit along with the women for a few hours listening to various speakers.
Shri. Albin, CITU( trade union affiliated to the Communist Party of India- Marxist) leader admitted that they did make a mistake regarding women workers and are now planning to fill the trade unions with 50% women. A son of the soil, he spoke of the bad condition of the Lower Primary school where children have to sit and study on a cold floor, the hospital where he hoped one day they will see one of their children as a doctor. He spoke of the need to remove the scheme of incentives and replace it by a salary. During a conversation later, he took me to see the bad living conditions in the workers’ homes. These tin roofed shacks were built in 1964 and repaired once in 1985 when a toilet was built. The septic tank is now full and the pipes have broken. So the sewage flows out and mixes into the stream which also gets the pesticide effluents from the teagardens. At the lower levels of the estate, this is what the people use for drinking water. A standing committee member on health in his panchayat, he has seen an increase in cancer over the years. He said that no plantation inspector has ever visited this area. M.A Ouseph, the AITUC( Trade Union affiliated to the Communist Party of India) leader spoke about how tea plantation workers were the least paid among all the plantations. Could this be because it is a female workforce that is doing most of the plucking here ? Rudramani( name changed) is 52. She started working in the plantations when she was 14. She has pain in her shoulders and knees. She is a permanent employee and can work uptil she is 58. But many take VRS and a sum of money as they have many health problems while doing this work for years on end. Kurinji( name changed) says she is 50. She looks 70. Her hands have deep black calluses. It may be because of the leaf shearing equipment she has used for years. She has not visited the dispensary for a long time as the new female doctor in the Surianelle Estate Hospital is indifferent to their ailments. This doctor goes on walks in the plantation with a big dog, dismisses their ailments as trivial without examining them. If younger women go to her with back aches and other complaints she tells them,’ It must be because you are sleeping with your men’. They want this doctor to be replaced by someone who is good and sensitive to them.
Talks between the unions and the estate managers has reached a standstill since my return. The Harrisons Estate employees are all going to go on an indefinite strike. The demands the women make are not just about increase in wages and a 20% bonus. They want good housing with decent sewage, a good hospital, better schools, an end to contract labour and no migrant labourers to be employed in the plantations. Women should not be made to work night shifts in the factories. They want a better life for future generations and most importantly a say in what that life should look like.
Five representatives of the Munnar women are in the State capital, Tiruvananthapuram today ( Sept 26th) to attend the Plantation Labour Committee meeting. They have not been allowed to participate as they are not part of any union. Undaunted, they plan to stay till this issue is resolved in their favour. Else, they have threatened to strike again.
Women workers are bringing forth their identities as workers and women to the forefront of this historic struggle. Some of them may move to create their own unions. There is a long history of this in India with SEWA which was started in 1972 in Ahmedabad by Ela Bhatt. I hope that the women workers across all the estates and plantations in India will be able to come together at a gathering and discuss their common issues. They should set aside their differences and create a common platform which can negotiate a fair deal for them. In this process, it is important that well meaning unions support them in ways they wish to be supported. The media too should let the women organize and report on their decisions after they hold a press conference. No meaningful debates and discussions can happen under the media glare. Finally, it is time that the women begin to be critical of the role the police is playing in this growing movement. I can say this as someone from the police in Munnar rang up my house to cross check on me. This has never happened in my years of working in the women’s movement.
I returned feeling that the hills were alive to the sound of a new music .
“ Porattam vidamatai” – We will not give up this fight – echoed from the same hills where their ancestors were brought as indentured labourers by the British in the 1890s.
G. Asha is a writer and photographer who has been active in the women’s movement in India from the late seventies.