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

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
08 September, 2020

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.

Plantations in Pettimudi are under the control of Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company Private Limited, or KDHP, an associate company of Tata Consumer Products. “Plantations began to expand in Kerala towards the end of the eighteenth century and the beginning of nineteenth century,” MP Kunhikanaran, a secretary of the Bhoosamara Samithi, a land-rights organisation, told me. “Indigenous communities were driven away from their land which was then used to grow plantations during the British era.” Kunhikanaran gave an example of how this was done. He said the feudal lords of the Travancore kingdom leased the land to a Britisher named John Munroe, who then gave it to companies such as the Kanan Devan.”

The lease was formalised at a time when the Travancore kingdom did not allow anyone from other regions, including Cochin and Malabar, to take possession of any parcel of land under its territory. “Travancore, Cochin and Malabar were distinct territories, before the state formation of Kerala,” Kunhikanaran explained. “Under the law in Travancore, people from Cochin and Malabar could not buy land there as those were seen as separate countries. So British companies could not go beyond holding a land on lease.”

When India attained freedom from colonial rule, the Indian Independence Act, 1947 stated that all treaties, grants and agreements that were in force between the British and Indian states would lapse from the day this law was enacted. “Naturally, after 1947, the companies had no official approval to continue here,” Kunhikanaran said. “The leases had ceased to exist and all the land was to return to the government. However, after 1947, though the British left India, their companies continued to maintain hold over land in Kerala. It became their empire.”

After the formation of the state of Kerala, the first government, led by the communist chief minister EMS Namboodiripad, initiated largescale land reforms perceived to be among the most important decisions that shaped Kerala’s development model. “But the plantation sector was distanced from those decisions,” Kunhikaran told me. “It protected the British plantation owners. The land that was illegally usurped by them did not fall under the purview of the land reforms.” Successive governments, alternatively led by the Left or the Congress, had remained indifferent as British companies continued to extend their hold over Kerala’s plantations.

The company that Munroe had established for coffee cultivation on the land he received from the Travancore kingdom, was transferred to another company called Finlay Muir and Co in 1895. It founded the Kannan Devan Hills Producing Company in 1897. Decades later, in 1976, Tata became a partner in the company, which then came to be known as Tata-Finlay Limited. This agreement was a consequence of the enforcement of the Foreign Exchange Regulation Act in 1973, as KDHP states on the company’s official website. The British partner of the company transferred full ownership to the Tatas only in 1983.

In an overdue acknowledgment of its ownership over the British-controlled plantation lands, the Kerala government passed the Kannan Devan Hills (Resumption of Lands) Act in 1971, which declared that “the possession of all lands situated in the Kannan Devan Hills village in the Devicolam taluk of the Kottayam district shall stand transferred to and vest in the Government free from all encumbrances.” This law sought to reclaim land that had not been converted to plantations and distribute it for cultivation purposes. It also stated the those who wished to contest the cancellation of possession of their respective land holdings could approach the state’s Land Board. The board allowed the foreign company to retain over 57,000 acres of land out of the total area of 1,37,613.39 acres.

During a webinar held on 15 August, Susheela Bhatt—a Kerala-based advocate—showed a soft copy of the transfer deed from the foreign company to the Tatas. “The document is replete with illegalities,” she said. “There is a schedule in it concerning land transfer. It states that as per the Kannan Devan Hills Land Resumption Act, we have right to possession over 57,000 acres of land given by the Land Board, but you may take possession of one lakh acres … What kind of a contradiction is this? They have included encroached land; they are controlling an empire in Munnar today.” Bhatt said that the legality of all company owned plantation land was questionable, as the land should have been returned to the government at independence and not sold by British companies to Indian companies. In an email response to queries, KDHP claimed that all allegations about encroachment of land and illegal constructions were “totally false and baseless.” They provided no evidence to support their claims, but included a section praising their own environmental preservation initiatives.

Bhatt has worked as a government pleader with three successive Kerala governments, spending much of her tenure fought several cases regarding land ownership against tea manufacturing companies, including KDHP. She said that foreign and subsequently, Indian private companies have thrived in the state’s plantation sector with explicit indifference to the law. “Why should we call them plantation owners? The landless and the plantation workers are the only ones who have right over this land,” Bhatt said. After arguing on behalf of the government in the land-grab cases during the terms of former chief ministers AK Antony, VS Achuthanandan and Oomen Chandy, she was ousted from office after the Vijayan came to power. Although it is routine for bureaucrats to be shifted out after elections, this decision was heavily criticised by civil society, opposition and leaders of Vijayan’s own party, as Bhatt had made considerable progress in holding the plantation companies accountable in court.

The claims of both the government and the plantation companies are in contrast to the vast majority of Pettimudi’s residents—Dalit labourers whose landlessness has been used to continue their generational labour in the plantations. K Santhosh Kumar, a Dalit social activist, told me that the lives of plantation workers have never surfaced in Kerala’s mainstream politics because of their social location. He has lived and worked in Munnar since 2017. “If you look at Munnar specifically, 90 percent of the people who live there are Tamil Dalits including people from Paraiyar and Arunthathiyar communities,” Kumar said. “They are never perceived as Keralites or Malayalis. They were brought as slaves into the plantation sector in the mid-1800s, but it was after Tata stepped in that they were brought in on a huge scale from Madurai and Tirunelveli.”

The destruction caused by the Pettimudi landslide highlighted the terrible living arrangements made by plantation companies for the labourers, further underscoring the community’s right to land and a life with dignity. The labourers and their families, regardless of the number of members, are packed into one-room settlements, several of which date back to British Raj. “It is a place where caste occupation is practised,” Kumar said. “One grave aspect of the plantation sector is that the settlements are only allotted to those who are working in the plantations … Their children don’t want to join the plantations. They may work in a hotel in Munnar or do something related to what they studied. So, the company issues a notice to them to vacate the settlement. Where will they go? They were brought here as slave some two hundred years ago and they have lived here for many generations.”

Kumar said that the plantation workers have no roots in Tamil Nadu or Kerala, and do not own any land. “The company will cut the water connection to the settlement and then the electricity,” Kumar added. “And the people won’t vacate. With no way out, they get their children, who have passed 10th or 12th, to go and work in the plantations.” As Kumar shared what he had heard and witnessed during his time with the families in Munnar, he hesitated to use the word “house” to describe the settlements. When contacted, KDHP denied that the houses given to plantation workers were overcrowded and in a dilapidated condition. They claimed that all houses were “compliant to the ‘Plans approved by the State Government’ under the Plantation Labour Act.”

Gomathi asserted that only the right to land can end the subjugation of the plantation workers. “The workers receive their post-retirement money at 58 years of age only after they return the keys to the house,” she said. “But many people are holding on to these settlements as they have no house to go to. And so, they lose the retirement money. They should be given land. Victims of the landslide should get houses of their own. Give it to those who survived. Half of them were buried under the soil.”

In its long history of survival in Kerala, the plantation workers’ community received media’s attention only on one occasion. In 2015, when the women workers of tea plantations had formed Pembilai Orumai to demand a hike in their low wages, Malayalam media extensively covered the living and working conditions of tea plantation labourers. In November 2015, Gomathi, from Pembilai Orumai, was elected as a ward member of the Devikulam block panchayat in Munnar. From her position as a public representative, she has continuously raised issues concerning her community including their right to land ownership.

In the run up to the 2016 Kerala assembly elections, the Left Democratic Alliance had charted out a 35-point-action programme as part of its manifesto. Under a detailed plan for the state’s plantation sector, the Left promised that large-scale plantation owners “who illegally hold land and transgress government land will be subjected to strict action. Such land available with them will be utilized for public purpose and for redistribution to the landless.”

Four years later, Vijayan’s government appears evasive on implementing its own stated agenda. Gomathi had personally met Vijayan at a public meeting in Idukki’s Adimali town in 2016, when he was campaigning for the assembly elections. “He promised me that the wages for plantation workers would be increased to Rs 500. Successive government have made such promises to us over many years,” Gomathi told me.

Gomathi said that the tea-plantation workers’ existence had remained unnoticed by the state’s political parties till Pembilai Orumai’s movement. “It was only in 2015 that they found out that we live in one-room houses, that we don’t have a good school or hospital, that we have bad roads and that we don’t have land of our own,” she told me. “Shouldn’t they have known before itself? It was only after we spoke up ourselves that the world came to know who we are.”

Jayaseelan Raj, an anthropologist with the Centre for Development Studies in Thiruvananthapuram, told me that resistance against exploitation by tea-manufacturing companies has existed as early as the 1960s, but those were not necessarily large-scale protests. “It may not be documented in a newspaper but only found in oral history,” Raj said. “Today, no one in America will use the word plantation. It is not a symbol of progress there. It is never a symbol of civilisation … there is a stigma attached to it. But in our country, even now, plantations are perceived as the centre of the national economy and the plantation crops are perceived as the centre of foreign exchange. Therefore, having plantation is a national act.”

In 1951, the central government enacted the Plantations Labour Act which made provisions for basic facilities including medical care, drinking water and housing for workers. Raj said that the existence of this law is often invoked to argue that the workers are taken care of, without examining the implementation of the provisions. “Some provisions may have been implemented in a rudimentary manner while others have not been implemented at all,” he told me. “There will be variations in the implementation under Tata compared to plantations in Wayanad and Peerumedu,” Raj said, referring to Kerala’s other plantation regions. “There have always been fluctuations in terms of entry of new companies, selling it to others and such decisions. So, there has been no regular or constant progress in welfare provisions.”

The Plantation Labour Act defines the employer as “the person who has the ultimate control over the affairs of the plantation.” Kumar explained that this law is a codification of the rules that the British had stipulated for the plantations in their colonies. “The British had made provisions for slaves in their plantations for bare minimum rights such as housing, water and other such basic necessities,” he told me. The law, enacted after independence, further entrenched the denial of dignity and basic rights to plantation labourers, who were never accorded the status of workers since the British era. “The state is not an authority in the areas where the Plantation Labour Act is in force,” Kumar said. “Those who hold monopoly over the plantations are the ones who make decisions regarding housing, education, health and wages. The state can barely intervene.” Kumar said that companies, including Tata, exist as a “state within a state” on Kerala’s plantation lands.

The British-era law supersedes all other laws in the plantation regions, thus bestowing the “ultimate right” to the companies controlling the estates, Kumar said. He gave the example of the state government’s 2008 amendment to the Kerala Shops and Commercial Establishment Workers’ Welfare Fund Act, which provided monetary benefits to workers on retirement or if they are unable to work for a duration longer than two years due to a physical disability. This law has a clause which states that “the workers employed in the establishments, where the Factories Act, 1948 or the Plantation Labour Act, 1951 are applicable, shall not include in the purview of this Act.”

This has had serious consequences in determining the wages of plantation workers as the same minimum wage provisions are not applicable to the group. In 2016, the Kerala government released a notification for minimum wages specifically for plantation workers. It ranges between Rs 200 and Rs 350, depending on the type of plantation. Gomathi confirmed to me that the workers in Munnar only get paid Rs 230 for a day of work; Rs 410 including benefits. The KDHP’s email response claimed that workers in their plantation are paid Rs 640, including various benefits, for a day of work. This was however denied by various plantation workers I spoke to. Palani Swamy, a KDHP worker from Pettimudi who lost his house and all his property to the landslide said that they had been only paid Rs 350 per day. When I mentioned the KDHP’s claim of Rs 640 per day, he repeated the figure to his family in the background and laughed. “These are all lies. They are fooling people with such lies.”

KDHP also claimed they had given financial aid of Rs 5 lakh for the families of those who died in the Pettimudi landslide. Swamy denied this claim. Swamy said they had received only Rs 2000 from the company and had received no compensation from the government yet. “If Tata company is offering any financial aid to the workers, they would have announced it,” Kumar told me. “It would have been announced as a big news before the public. But no such thing has come to our attention. That has not happened.”

On 4 September, a special revenue committee set up by the state government submitted a report to H Dineshan, the district collector of Idukki, to account for the losses suffered in the landslide. A report in Manorama Online said that the special revenue committee calculated 3.5 crore as financial compensation and 88 lakh rupees for the damage caused. “Damage in this context refers to the plantations under the KDHP company,” Kumar told me. “So, the fund would be for constructing those settlements and not for the workers. As far as the 3.5 crore is concerned, there were 66 people who died and four who went missing. The families of these 70 people will receive five lakh rupees each. This five lakh is all that they will get.”

The company also claimed to have given safe temporary housing for those displaced by the disaster. “The company has not provided us with any housing. I am staying with my sister. There are five-six families staying in one house. The company has done nothing. The union has done nothing. Nobody has come to meet us.” Swamy said that the survivors of the landslide were now helpless. “It has been 30 days. For how long can we stay with our relatives?” Swamy told me. “I have my wife and three children. We received a kit with some rice. Where will we cook? How long do we bother our relatives? There are so many of us and we can't have a proper bath. We can’t even heat some water. What should we do?”

Despite being settled in Kerala for generations, the plantation workers continue to be seen as outsiders, which is an impediment to their attempts to mobilise a protest and communicate their demands to the government. “Tamils are identified as ‘pandi’ in local speak. It is a racially loaded term,” Raj told me. Pandi is a commonly used racial slur for Tamils in Kerala. “When the Pembilai Orumai movement took place, many politicians acted surprised saying that they did not know about this. But we often see on the news that powerful elites, including politicians, own resorts there,” Raj said. “Munnar is central to Kerala, for one, in tea production. It is quite connected to global capitalism. But at the same time, it is provincialised whenever something is demanded, whenever they want to argue that it doesn’t actually fit in with our development model.”

Gomathi did not speak Malayalam at the time of the Pembilai Orumai protest in 2015. “It caused a lot of problems for us,” she told me. “We were saying one thing and the government was saying another. When we went to meet Oomen Chandy sir, we could not understand Malayalam and he could not understand our Tamil. Now, I can speak decently well. If I could do it back then, a lot of things could have been achieved,” she said. The lack of knowledge of Malayalam is a problem in government offices which accept forms only in the state’s language. Gomathi told me that the workers have to pay Rs 100–130 for assistance in filling paperwork.

“I was in Munnar in 2017 when there was another protest demanding land,” Kumar said. “There was a mass campaign by progressive sections asking why Tamils should be given land here. We claim that we have an inclusive culture. Is Malayalam the mother tongue of Adivasi communities and fishing communities settled here? We immediately brand plantation workers as Tamils or pandis if they raise their demands.” Both Kumar and Raj argued that the hostility faced by tea-plantation labourers was built on casteist stereotypes perpetuated by Keralites.

Kunhikaran, a secretary of the Bhoosamara Samithi, said that the plantation workers’ stigmatisation as outsiders is one reason why the state’s labour unions have failed to raise the issues that concern the community. He told me that it was ironic that political-corporate nexus had developed in Munnar between the plantation companies and various communist outfits. Referring to the All India Trade Union Congress, a trade union affiliated with the Communist Party of India, he said, “The AITUC is the main organisation there. The branch committee office of the CPI (M) is a five-storey building. Where do you think it is located? On government land illegally usurped by Tata.” The presence of communist party offices on land controlled by Tata has been reported previously. With political parties and their affiliated trade unions embroiled in connection to the tea estate empire, workers of the plantations get no support when they rise in protest.

Multiple instances illustrate how the state government and companies attack any workers or activists who break the plantation’s omerta about the exploitation of labourers. On 25 August, Kunhikanaran and other leaders from civil-society organisations visited Pettimudi on a fact-finding exercise with regard to the reasons behind the landslide, the conditions of the workers and their families and their demands. “When we left Munnar, we received information that Tata’s management visited the workers who spoke with us and threatened to stop them from working there any further,” Kunhikanaran told me. “They were told they would be forcefully sent back to Tamil Nadu. Tata is treating them with cruelty because they spoke openly with us.” KDHP denied threatening to dismiss employees who raised complaints about working conditions in the plantation, claiming they have a grievance redressal system with representation from major unions. However, given the dependence of the unions on KDHP, it is not clear how much support workers in Pettimudi would have got from unions when they had grievances against the company.

For the last five years, Gomathi has been speaking at various public forums to bring public attention towards the harsh environment in Munnar for workers and has faced backlash. “I was staying in a rented house in Munnar,” she told me. “But when I protested demanding land, the police arrived and caused problems. They threatened the house owner and I was thrown out.” She anticipates pressure and harassment in the coming days. But, she told me, she fears nobody.

The chief minister’s office did not respond to questions about the legality of KDHP’s landholdings, the removal of Bhatt as a government pleader, the promised increase in minimum wage for plantation workers or the unequal compensation received by the victims of the Pettimudi landslide. This article will be updated as and when we receive responses.

Kunhikaran recalled a conference organised by the CPI(M) in 1956 where they had demanded that the elected government should take over the plantations. “Even after the British left India in 1947, the plantations continued to represent British capital here,” he told me. “The communist party had raised slogans to nationalise plantation lands. When this party came to power, the issue was forgotten. The lakhs of people who till the lands of Kerala were left out of the land reforms. Till date, nearly three and a half lakh plantation workers in Kerala are not regarded as human beings by plantation companies.”