How 'nokku kooli' harassment continues in Kerala, 3 years after CM scrapped it

Though CM Pinarayi Vijayan declared that the state will be free of nokku kooli or gawking charges in May 2018, the practice continues to exist in some parts of the state, including Thiruvananthapuram.
Headload workers file photo
Headload workers file photo
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In March 2018, after convening a meeting with all trade unions, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan declared that the state will be free of nokku kooli (gawking charges) from May 1, 2018. Apart from that, Pinarayi Vijayan also ordered individuals, private companies, and offices to hire their own staff or labourers for the head-loading work. Unions cannot forcibly take up head-loading work unless they have been hired to do it, the CM said.

But even after this, there have been a lot of reports, especially from Thiruvananthapuram, Kollam and many other districts of Kerala, where workers have caused trouble. In Pothencode of  Thiruvananthapuram, a contractor and a few migrant labourers were assaulted by a group of trade union workers on September 23. In a video that was shared on social media, a group can be seen attacking the men, asking them to stop the construction work of a house. Media reports said that the workers assaulted the labourers as they denied them nokku kooli for unloading construction materials. As per reports, workers from both Indian National Trade Union Congress (INTUC) and Centre of Indian Trade Unions (CITU) were involved in the assault.

'Nokku kooli' refers to loading, unloading and supervision charges demanded by workers, even if nobody has hired them to do the work. It was a common practice earlier among head-load workers who were part of trade unions. However, though nokku kooli was stopped in many parts of the state after sharp criticism, it continues to exist in other parts. 

On September 4 , the Kerala High Court told the state government that abolishing nokku kooli was the need of the hour. The court made the observation when hearing a petition filed by TK Sundaresan of Kollam, against trade unions demanding nokku kooli for unloading construction materials on his land. The HC also said that this practice would tarnish the image of the state.

Two days after the HC direction, cargo that reached the Indian Space Research Organisation (ISRO) was blocked by local workers who demanded gawking charges. According to Rajeswari, an employee of ISRO, the cargo was so heavy that it could only be offloaded with the use of hydraulic systems. Despite this, she told PTI, the workers wanted money for letting the cargo in. She added that ever since the Vikram Sarabhai Space Centre (VSSC) was set up after acquiring land from local residents, it has been the practice to pay them whenever goods arrive. She said that she hoped the practice would be done away with as they have now lodged a police complaint.

But if one asks any head-load worker or trade union member about nokku kooli, they claim that they don't practice it. Where do the complaints arise from then?

Suresh, a head-load worker, says that nokku kooli is about protecting the rights of the local workers. "Any loading and unloading work in an area should be given to the trade union's head-load workers' unit in that particular place. These groups function at the local level in an area, which may consist of two or three residential colonies, offices, commercial institutions and so on. Whether there's construction work for a house, building or someone is shifting, the loading and unloading work is the right of the workers who belong to that local unit, unless the work is done by the owners themselves. If other labourers, including migrant workers, professional packers and movers or others hired by the owner enter the scene, we will not allow them to load or unload. In many cases, the owners hire their own labourers to do the work and pay some amount to the trade union to avoid any trouble. The amount will be less if no work has been done, more if they were involved in the loading and unloading. They call it nokku kooli, but it's not nokku kooli. We are forcibly asking that we are allowed to work, and demanding payment. If the owner doesn't pay, the union workers will raise it as an issue, stating that it is their duty," he says.

But in the name of protecting workers' rights to fair income, the practice often amounts to sheer harassment. Anjana, who was transferred from Kochi to Thiruvananthapuram, rented a house in Sreekaryam a few months ago. She hired professional packers and movers and paid them Rs 18,500 for their services.  At around 11.30 am, when she arrived with a truck full of household items to her newly rented house, she was shocked to see four bikes following the vehicle. "When we stopped outside the house,  the eight men also stopped and got ready to unload our things. I was shocked as I hadn't experienced something like this in Kochi. I told them that it will be done by the staff who moved the items. They started shouting, saying that it is their duty. They demanded Rs 5,000 for unloading the items from the vehicle, not even carrying them to the first floor flat which I had rented," she says. Anjana somehow bargained with the group and paid them Rs 3,000. She requested them not to touch anything as the items had to be handled with care.

"But, they were stubborn that they had to unload the items, and that they couldn't accept money without doing work. They forced me to give them work and forcibly took money. They unloaded a few things just to show that they had worked, and left. All the things that they unloaded were damaged as they threw everything to the ground. I had paid so much for professional movers to handle everything with care, but of what use?" she laments.

Bhavani, 60, from Thiruvananthapuram, got some money from the government to build a house after a long wait. "I got just Rs 4 lakh. I have to construct a small house with this limited amount. I gave the contract to a person and he promised to complete the work. But each time construction materials arrive, some people come by claiming to be union workers, and demand money to unload them. There are labourers hired by the contractor to do the job, but still we are forced to pay these head-load workers extra. It is really a headache for me each time building materials are brought," she says.

Small-scale hoteliers and many others running small businesses face harassment by the trade union head-load workers. In many cases, even the police had to stand by and witness the goondaism. "These are powerful teams with strong political support. Though we get numerous complaints, we are helpless many times," a Sub Inspector of police told TNM.

However, Anathalavattom Anandan, State President CITU, says that the organisation doesn't support these illegal activities. "People can assign loading and unloading work to anybody they wish. There is no rule that trade union workers are bound to do it. Anybody who faces harassment from these workers can complain at the Labour Commission or with the police. We will not support them," he says.

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