Pettimudi landslide highlights how Kerala’s private plantation empire exploits Dalit workers

08 September 2020
Women who collect tea leaves, Munnar Tata Tea Company, Kerala. The recent Pettimudi landslide highlighted the systemic mistreatment of tea plantation labourers by plantation companies, and the collusion of trade unions and the Kerala government in brazenly ignoring the plight of the community, a majority of who are Tamil-speaking Dalits.
DeAgostini / Getty Images
Women who collect tea leaves, Munnar Tata Tea Company, Kerala. The recent Pettimudi landslide highlighted the systemic mistreatment of tea plantation labourers by plantation companies, and the collusion of trade unions and the Kerala government in brazenly ignoring the plight of the community, a majority of who are Tamil-speaking Dalits.
DeAgostini / Getty Images

On the night of 6 August, a fatal landslide struck Pettimudi, a village in Kerala’s Idukki district, amid heavy floods that have become an annual occurrence across the state since 2018. The torrential rainfall, which continued from 1 to 6 August, triggered a landslide that reduced settlements in Pettimudi to rubble and killed over eighty people. Among the people affected in the district were tea plantation workers. A vast majority of them are descendants of Dalit communities from Tamil Nadu, who were brought to Kerala in the British era. But even now, they are branded as “outsiders” within the state.

On 10 August, when rescue operations were still underway, the Kerala government decided to bury the dead in three mass graves. Several activists who visited Pettimudi after the landslide told me that the burial of workers in mass graves was dehumanising and as an insult to the community. On 13 August, Pinarayi Vijayan, the chief minister of Kerala from the Communist Party of India (Marxist), refused to meet leaders of the community when he visited the village to oversee rescue operations.

The incident highlighted the systemic mistreatment of tea plantation labourers, and the Kerala government’s habit of brazenly ignoring the plight of the community. Left-leaning trade unions in Kerala have for decades worked closely with plantation companies in Idukki district to suppress plantation labourers whose contracts closely resemble bonded labour. The labourers are easily ignored both because they are Dalit and Tamil speakers, and thus, outsiders in Kerala. Activists and academics working with plantation labourers told me that with the connivance of both Congress and communist governments, tea-plantation companies rule almost as a state within a state. They asserted that the plantation companies are not the rightful owners of the land where they have set up operations.

When addressing the media on 13 August, Vijayan promised new houses for the kin of victims of the landslide and said that land for the same will be earmarked in consultation with a tea estate company, on 13 August. He also announced Rs 5 lakh would be given as financial aid to the survivors of the disaster. However, his visit—seven days after the calamity—drew heavy criticism. Many locals were angry that the survivors of the landslide were given only half the financial aid of survivors of a plane crash that occurred in Kozhikode on 7 August, all of whom were given Rs 10 lakh.

On the morning of the chief minister’s visit, Gomathi Augustine, a leader of Pembilai Orumai—a collective formed by women tea-plantation workers—sat on the road awaiting his arrival, determined to meet him. Gomathi spoke on a live-streamed video from her Facebook account. Pembilai Orumai, which translates to women united—has been at the forefront of demanding better pay, housing and land for tea workers since 2015. Gomathi tearfully insisted that she would not leave without meeting the chief minister and said that the plantation labourers need land—a demand they have been raising for years. While she was still speaking on camera, Kerala police personnel pulled her away and aggressively manhandled her in public. She was detained for several hours that day. This incident is part of a long history of governments implicitly supporting private corporation and quelling any protests by the tea-plantation community.

Aathira Konikkara is a reporting fellow at The Caravan.

Keywords: tea plantations Dalit rights Kerala Pinarayi Vijayan CPI(M) CPI-M Indentured Labour Tata Tea
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