Indian Police Service (IPS) officer K. Sethuraman is convinced that the devastating Pettimudi landslide, which occurred near Kerala hill station Munnar last fortnight, was a “man-made” disaster, not an environmental catastrophe that can conveniently be clocked up to climate change. 61 people, mostly tea estate workers and their families, were buried alive in the landslide that occurred after heavy rains, while 9 people are still missing.
“If they were provided with their own land and safe houses away from the highly vulnerable, ecologically fragile zone of the tea estate, the landslide may not have killed anyone. They all lived in a narrow-spaced cluster of workers’ quarters, known locally as ‘layams’, which was located in an area highly vulnerable to landslides. The tragedy is the latest example of how marginalised communities are becoming victims of natural disasters,’’ said Sethuraman, currently the DIG of Kannur range.
He knows first-hand the challenges that come with such a precarious existence—Sethuraman was born in a tiny one-room house in a layam, in the Cholamala division of the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations, barely 20 km away from Pettimudi.
As landslides and massive floods turn into an annual affair in the hill regions of Kerala, around 16,000 plantation workers who live in cramped layams across 50-odd tea estates in and around Munnar are mired in worry and insecurity. Most of them are landless Dalits from Tamil Nadu whose ancestors migrated to Kerala decades ago, and fear the day their employer or the inevitable retirement will turf them out of the only home they have. Many workers are forced to pull their children out of school to work in the plantations so that they are guaranteed at least a living space.
While the Pinarayi Vijayan-led state government has promised a one-time compensation to those affected by the landslide, the real issue is one of land ownership. Activists say these workers have been left out of the much-trumpeted land reforms initiated by Kerala’s first government, led by E.M.S Namboodiripad, and implemented by successive governments.
“The land reforms have exempted big plantations from its purview, saying they are giving jobs to a large number of plantation workers. However, the plantations have implemented a modern version of slavery, with poor labourers remaining unprivileged. The land reforms have failed in the case of not only Tamil-speaking plantation workers but also in the case of Dalits and tribals in the state,’’ said Dalit rights activist and scholar S. Santhosh Kumar.
Activists also allege that Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Co. Pvt. Ltd (KDHP), which operates the plantation where the landslide occurred, has not delivered promised benefits to workers or improved their living conditions in any material way.
IPS officer Sethuraman, whose mother Subbammal was illiterate and father Karuppayya studied only up to Class IV, said he was fortunate to be able to study well and get admission at Sainik School in Udumalpet region of Tamil Nadu. But he’s painfully aware that his story is the exception, not the rule.
“My people have been living for generations in these clusters without any basic amenities and periodic repairs. They are Dalits without ownership over even a single cent of land. I am categorical that my people deserve houses in safe zones with ownership over the land to be assigned to them. In Munnar and surrounding areas, the key question is land, not one-time compensation to the families of those who perish in tragedies,’’ said Sethuraman, who was deeply disturbed by the Pettimudi tragedy.
Pitiable conditions, unmet demands
Last week, when Kerala Governor Arif Mohammad Khan and Chief Minister Vijayan visited the disaster site at Pettimudi, G. Gomathi, the face of land and livelihood rights movements of Munnar plantation workers, tried to meet them to speak about the prevailing situation and to convince them of the need to ensure land and safe houses to those who were living in layams. But she was not allowed to do so, and was briefly arrested by the police for attempting to stop Vijayan’s convoy.
Gomathi told HuffPost India that there is discrimination even in the case of awarding of compensation.
“The Chief Minister announced Rs 5 lakh as compensation to the kith and kin of those who died in Pettimudi. However, Rs 10 lakh was promised to family members of each passenger who died in the flight crash at Calicut International Airport, which happened on the same day. When we raised the issue, the government said the rest of the compensation would emerge in the form of a rehabilitation package. We don’t want any rehabilitation that would not address the basic concerns of land and dwelling,’’ she said.
Around five years ago, Gomathi led a massive strike of women workers with a host of demands, including better housing, which had won national attention. At the time, national media had also highlighted how the workers were living in cramped one-room layams. As a face-saver, their employer KDHP, partly owned by Tata Global Beverages, had promised to expand and improve the residential facilities. But this was not done.
KDHP, South India’s largest producer and exporter of tea, owns most of the tea estates in Munnar. While a company representative told HuffPost India that the workers’ claims were “unrealistic” considering the crisis in the plantation sector, the labourers allege indifference from the management.
“Other than safe houses, the agitators had demanded better educational facilities for children, introduction of mechanised methods for plucking tea shoots and rights over the pieces of land they live in. But these demands have been unaddressed,’’ said Dalit leader Sunny Kapikkad.
“Plantation work is really tough and involves huge risks. We pay our blood to the leeches and snakes often bite us. We are living here as slaves for generations”
Susheela Bhatt, a senior Kerala High Court Lawyer who was formerly special public prosecutor for the state government, told HuffPost India that KDHP’s claims of being majority-owned by its employees are not tenable.
“It’s a man-made disaster caused only due to the negligence and lackadaisical attitude of the corporate company and director board of KDHP. The company was aware that it was a landslide-prone area. The impact was aggravated due to the lack of proper houses. No renovation of the layams were undertaken in the last 50 years. All Munnar estates with mono-cropping are prone to environmental hazards. The company has no vision or policy to address it. The owners must be made accountable. The contract between KHDP and workers is vague and unheard of anywhere in the world.,″ she said.
According to her, the company is legally bound to compensate the workers. This view was backed by CM Vijayan, who held a review meeting in Munnar after the incident.
The Covid-19 pandemic has also brought its own set of fears for the workers. Health activists have asked people who live in houses with just one room and a tiny kitchen to maintain strict social distancing. But workers say 4-5 people sleep on a single bed and no distancing is possible inside the layams.
Mohan C. Varghese, vice-president of KDHP, told HuffPost India that the company has financial constraints but has been conducting periodic renovations of the layams. He also claimed that KDHP’s layams were in much better condition than those of other plantations.
Idukki district collector H. Dineshan told HuffPost India that the government is looking into the pitiable living conditions of plantation workers in Munnar. The collector has prepared a detailed report on the conditions of layams, which he said would be submitted to the government soon.
“Most of the layams are over 50 years old and plantation companies are not undertaking any maintenance. Survival is extremely tough for the people in them,’’ he said.
According to one estimate, over 10,000 people stay in KDHP’s layams alone. As the ownership of the layams lie with the companies, workers have no right to conduct any maintenance work without obtaining permission from the company.
The collector confirmed to HuffPost India that the pathetic condition of layams was one of the contributing factors that aggravated the Pettimudi tragedy.
“Most of the layams are over 50 years old and plantation companies are not undertaking any maintenance. Survival is extremely tough for the people in them”
Left out of land reforms
Most of the plantation workers in Idukki are landless Dalits from southern parts of Tamil Nadu, whose ancestors migrated to Kerala three generations ago. In 1870, Britishers started plantations in Munnar by clearing long tracts of forests. Now the plantations, mostly leased by companies from the Kerala government, are spread over 13,000 hectares while their employees remain landless and homeless. Plantation workers blame the organised central trade unions as well as their leaders who engage in secret pacts with the plantation owners for personal gains for their plight.
While the Kerala government in 2017 began a ‘Life Mission’ project that gives Rs 2 lakh to poor families to renovate their houses, landless estate workers are not eligible to apply for this amount. Though former Chief Minister and veteran Communist leader V.S. Achuthanandan strongly advocated the cause of Munnar plantation workers for years and demanded steps to take back excess land in the leased stretches from KDHP, his attempts were thwarted by his own party colleagues and those in other political parties. He had also stressed the need for a second edition of land reforms that plug the existing loopholes.
“The government is allocating a maximum of three cents of land to Dalits and tribals to build houses. Three cents are insufficient and their needs are not limited to just housing. They need a small portion of their own agricultural land as well. Only such land ownership can help them overcome retirement fears and retrenching in estates,’’ said activist Santhosh Kumar.
“Plantation work is really tough and involves huge risks. We pay our blood to the leeches and snakes often bite us. And we are living here as slaves for generations. We have no educational or health facilities here. We sincerely wish that our children get outside this tangled web and find education and jobs outside,’’ said Gomathi.