Many decades ago, everyone – from children to the elderly - in the Sambava community of Kurungalloor Colony lived by transforming bamboo reeds into a variety of products. From morning till evening, the people of this colony, which is in Veliyoor of Vallarada Panchayat in Thiruvananthapuram, would work outside their huts to make beautiful things out of bamboo. That was the only occupation they knew, and they adapted their creativity as per the demands of the market over the years.
They made mats, baskets, handicrafts, furniture, bags, window panes and more. The number of workers increased day by day as new generations too took to the traditional occupation.
However, over the years, the condition of the once famous bamboo village has deteriorated. The traditional artisans of the colony have become daily wage earners, domestic workers or MNREGA labourers.
"Now you’ll hardly find 10 to 15 women who work under the Bamboo Corporation. There are around five youngsters who work on handicrafts that are marketed through SEWA, an NGO. There were more than 100 women working under the Corporation until a few years ago," says Vijayan Veliyannoor, a social worker and the leader of the bamboo labourers’ union.
Other than these artisans, everyone else is dependent on daily wage work outside the colony. The long-held tradition of the Sambava community is nearly lost.
It was in 1979 that the Kerala State Bamboo Corporation Limited began a community mat weaving centre near the colony. The community members wove bamboo mats which were bought by the Corporation and converted to bamboo plywood. Those were good days for the traditional bamboo workers of the colony. Though the wages were low, they could continue their traditional work. They also received a dearness allowance and other facilities apart from daily wages.
"In the 1980s, we got Rs 10 for weaving a single mat. It took a day to weave one. But though the wages were low, we were paid the correct amount," says Sukumari, a weaver. There was no minimum wage system for bamboo artisans.
"Wages were increased a little later, but all the time, we struggled to live. So, the majority have quit the profession," she says.
Till 2014, the wages and DA were mostly paid regularly.
"They get around Rs 100 for weaving a mat, which takes a day's hard work. From this money, they have to pay for the bamboo. Deducting that, they may get around Rs 70 to Rs 80 per day. Is it possible for a person to live with that?" Vijayan asks.
However, after 2014, the wages and DA have become irregular, allege the workers.
“We are still sticking to this craft as it’s our traditional occupation. However, from last August, the wages have not been paid at all. The bamboo raw material comes once in a while and we don't have work on all days. Apart from this, we’ve not got DA for the last 27 months," says Lekha, a bamboo worker. She adds that she will not change her occupation despite the hardship.
According to the data of the Bamboo Corporation, there are about 1,500 reed cutters, 9,484 families and around 30,000 other workers who are dependent on bamboo work.
"Though the Corporation was running on profit at the beginning, they now claim that they are running on a loss of Rs 84 crore," Vijayan says.
The labour union had given a complaint to the Kerala Chief Minister earlier and the CM had assigned the Labour Commissioner to study the situation a few months ago.
In a report submitted in October 2019 by the Labour Commissioner’s office, it was mentioned that around Rs 11 crore is yet to be given as DA to the labourers. The Labour Commissioner's office has said that they will examine if the complaints from the labourers are genuine and that the issue can only be solved with financial help from the government.