At 10.45 PM on the 6th of August, 2020, amidst heavy rainfall, a massive landslide buried a settlement called Pettimudi, a part of Rajamala Ward of Munnar in Idukki District. Pettimudi consisted of shoddily build single room tenements in two rows inhabited by 83 tea plantation workers employed by Kanan Devan Hills Plantation (P) Ltd. (KDHPL), a part of the Tata group. It is important for the purpose of this essay to point out that most plantation workers in this region are Tamil Bahujans. The difficulty and remoteness of the terrain were big impediments in the rescue operations and the initial work was done by locals. As I sit writing this 49 bodies have been recovered from the debris and 12 lives have been rescued and the rest are still missing. The 12 who have been rescued have also lost everything that they possessed.
Despite all the boasts about the Kerala Model, the conditions of life and employment of tea plantation workers in Kerala in general is – because of a lack of a better word – slavish. They work long shifts and after a lifetime of employment get to take home between 1 – 2 Lakh Rupees as gratuity on retirement. The low wages ensure that they do not have sufficient savings and most of these people cannot afford to even buy a small house after a lifetime of work. Along with the geographic remoteness of these plantations, the wages also mean that access to quality education for the children of these plantation workers is next to impossible. To put this in perspective, while the average minimum wage in Kerala is INR 500/- per day for an eight hour working day (Kerala has huge gender disparities in wages still), the plantation worker gets INR 234/- for a twelve hour working day with an output of 31 KG of tea per day for 6 days a week. The tragic part is that this ensures many of these people are born and die here in the face of blatant linguistic, class and caste discrimination.
Interestingly, the wages of plantation workers in Kerala are fixed by a body called the Plantation Labour Committee (PLC) comprising representatives of trade unions, plantation managements and the government. However, any meeting of the PLC can be initiated only by the Labour Minister. Moreover none of the mainstream Trade Unions in Kerala have shown any interest in the plantation workers’ plight till recently until 2015, when the plight of plantation workers was brought into focus and mainstream attention as an all-women’s group called Pembilai Urimai launched a strike against KDHPL that slashed the annual bonus from 20 to 10%. The strike kept all the mainstream trade unions and politicians at bay. The strike was successful as the government convened negotiations where Pembilai Orumai was given the space to be the main representative of plantation workers and all their demands being met. This also spawned strikes and go-slow protests in other Harrison Malayalam Plantations across Wayanad and Idukki Districts. This success however seem to have rubbed the mainstream trade unions on the wrong side, particularly CITU and its parent political party CPM. The current electricity minister of Kerala and the Idukki legislator was reported to have accused members of Pembilai Urimai of being sexually promiscuous. This diversionary story is important to augment the questions that I raise at the end of this essay.
As the Kerala media was busy harvesting this disaster for TRPs and before they could milk it dry, another visually more ‘attractive’ and accessible disaster happened at Karippur airport, Kozhikode in the northern part of Kerala. At 7.38 PM on 7th August, an Air India Express plane ferrying 190 passengers over-landed and crashed at the end of the highway breaking the plane into two and killing 18 people including the pilots and seriously injuring 22 others. In a show of solidarity that people of this region are known for, they gathered together despite the Corona triple lockdown and heavy rains to rescue those trapped and pressed even their private vehicles into service moving the injured to nearby hospitals.
Here, it has to be remembered that quite a bit of the Kerala model has been financed by overseas remittances. While, most households have at least one member working abroad and many of these would be engaged in strenuous manual labour under harsh conditions. Of course, there are rich and powerful people amongst these. Majority of non-resident Malayalees work in the GCC countries. They, particularly from Bahujan Muslim backgrounds, invest most of their small savings back in their home towns and villages. These savings are hugely responsible for the almost uniform development of Kerala. The families of these people are a major constituency and political parties across the spectrum need to pander to them. Many hospitals, schools, colleges, businesses, buildings, media houses, charities etc., are financed largely by these monies. In short, they are a strong social, economic and political base that Kerala cannot ignore. So, the television cameras immediately moved there for 24/7 coverage and newsrooms were filled with Toms, Dicks and Harries who suddenly became experts on aviation and airplanes.
The hypocrisy of the media that largely reflects the xenophobia, casteism and feudalism of Kerala society apart, what gets my goat and spurred this essay is that a Government headed by a political party claiming Marxist ideology announced a compensation of INR 5 Lakhs per deceased person at Pettimedu to a set of completely disenfranchised people and INR 10 Lakhs per deceased person at Karippur – who regardless of their identity locations are entitled to compensation from the airlines and insurance.
Lest I be misunderstood, let me make this clear, I do not grudge a single penny that any of the deceased at Karippur got. In fact, I am glad that they are getting compensated well and while monetary compensations cannot replace lives – the quantum of compensation hopefully will pave the way for a better livelihood especially for the poor people who may have died in the accident.
The basic question that I want to ask in this essay is, what is it that prevents Kerala from showing at least the same, if not the greater empathy that the people of Pettimedu deserve? Is it caste, class, xenophobia or all these factors put together? Well, I suppose in Kerala, what is good for the goose is not good for the gander!
Bobby Kunhu is a lawyer, researcher and writer.