About 12 kilometres from Varkala lies Chirayinkeezhu, where the backwaters of Anchuthengu and the Vamanapuram River meet. Located in Thiruvananthapuram, this picturesque taluk has always been known for its traditional coir industry.
There were almost 60 coir-manufacturing cooperative societies functioning out of Chirayinkeezhu till just a few years ago. But now, the number has literally halved, as the remaining half lies shut.
While neighbouring states switched over to machines to increase their coir-production, Kerala still clung on to traditional manufacturing methods.
As per reports, Rs.300 crore worth coir-fibre is annually exported to China from Tamil Nadu, which uses the said turnover to purchase advanced machinery that in turn enables the state to flood markets with coir-products at cheap rates.
Going by old records, Kerala has around 4,00,000-odd workers working in the coir sector supported by the state government. The Coir Workers Union Thiruvananthapuram president G. Sugunan told The News Minute that almost 50% of workers in the district were however forced to quit the sector due to apathy shown by authorities:
â€śEven in this age of inflation, a coir-worker earns a paltry sum of Rs 250-300 as his/her daily wages. With most of them mired in sheer poverty, there is an urgent need to increase their minimum wages.â€ť
68-year old Thankamma comes to work well after her retirement age has passed, as she is not eligible for pension.
â€śEvery month they deduct a fixed amount from our daily wages, saying we will get it as a monthly pension of Rs. 1000, once we retire. I am yet to get it even once after retirement. I was left with no choice but to start working again. I do it on a temporary basis these days, as I suffer from a lot of physical ailments. I have no idea when I shall be able to finally take some rest. If only they give me pension, will I be able to at least renovate my one-room house,â€ť says Thankamma.
Ashokan -secretary of the Aanathlavattom Coir Cooperative Society in Chirayinkeezhu- says that demonetisation has only served to further worsen the existing mess in the sector.
â€śEarlier, we used to hand them their daily wages in person. But after demonetisation, it now gets credited in the bank. Most of them being old, they are still learning to use the ATM. If they opt to withdraw it directly from the bank, they end up foregoing a dayâ€™s wage, since they cannot then report for work in time. Missing work for even a day entails a huge monetary loss for these poor people,â€ť remarks Ashokan.
According to him, about 60% of coir- workers in Chirayinkeezhu are aged above 50. â€śIt is hence very difficult for them to get a hang of all these cashless transaction methods. So they opt to go the bank instead,â€ť he adds.
The loss of an entire tradition is what makes it a matter of such grave concern, claims Ashokan: â€śA job in the coir sector is not just a job alone, but the carrying forward of a tradition. Thousands of traditional labourers have lost their jobs, and nothing is being done about it.â€ť
Responding to the issue, state Finance Minister Dr. Thomas Isaac told Manorama News that the CoirFed (a Kerala government enterprise) plans to buy all that is produced by the state coir industry.
â€śThe government will ensure at least 200 days of work for labourers in the state coir-sector. The losses incurred till date will be borne by the government. We also plan to bring in machines for better production. And pension matters will be resolved in the coming budget session," the Minister promised.
All photos by Sreekesh Raveendran Nair