On August 13, days after a massive landslide in Munnar’s Pettimudi, Kerala Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan visited the hilly town. A visit that was supposed to be a smooth event was marred by visuals of a woman waving and shouting at the Chief Minister’s convoy. Dressed in a blue saree, her cries of ‘Leave me, I want to meet him’ was audible over the attempts of the police to take her away from the scene as several cars of the convoy whizzed past them.
That woman in blue is Gomathi Augustine, a tea estate worker, a local activist and the former President of Devikulam block panchayat. Born and brought up in Devikulam Kanan Devan tea estate plantations, 42-year-old Gomathi studied till class 10 after which she started working in one of the tea plantations in the region. She shot to fame after she and other women led the Munnar Kannan Devan plantation strike in 2015, an all-women protest against the Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Limited, that lasted for almost two months. The strike had around 5000 women workers protesting against the management’s decision to reduce the bonus from 20% to 10%. Later that year, Gomathi contested in the local body elections and won from Devikulam Panchayat.
It is in the capacity of a local leader and a familiar face that Gomathi went to meet those who were affected in the landslide. The scenes she saw broke her, she recollects.
“When I visited the site, I could see people looking scared and hopeless. Those who fled from the landslide had left behind their house and belongings,” she says.
“There have been several incidents (smaller scale) like the recent landslide at Pettimudi. But none of it came out in the limelight due to collusion between the estate owners and the politicians here. There are places worse and more dangerous than Pettimudi in Munnar,” she adds.
The reason for the large damage caused due to the landslide, according to her, is the lack of proper housing for the estate workers in the region. Munnar’s tea estates employ at least 12,000 workers, mostly Dalits from Tamil Nadu.
“Many of the workers here in Munnar are still living in the houses in which their ancestors lived. Those will be the houses which were built when their great-grandfathers came to work in the Britishers tea estates here. Since then, the houses have remained the same. Most of these families are in their fourth or even fifth generation since then. Imagine how weak the structures must be. The workers want to build their own house and are not ready to live in company provided line houses anymore,” she explains.
Most of the quarters the estate workers have been living in for generation are in a dilapidated condition. With one room, one kitchen and a verandah, sometimes more than five members of a family are crammed into the matchbox houses. In some parts of Kerala, estate workers have pointed out that asbestos sheets serve as roofs on their houses, which often become leaky when it rains.
Gomathi says families who have been toiling in the tea estates for the last 4-5 generations, have failed to acquire any assets like land due to the paltry wages they have been receiving over decades. Up until 2015, the daily wage for a worker in the estates was around Rs 230 which has now become Rs 400, she says.
“The working hours were from 7 am to 6 pm. There were a lot of protests in 2015 against the oppressive work practises by estate owners. But now those who protested have all gone on to the other side, working for the politicians and the estate owners themselves,” she alleges. Adding that the tea estate workers’ unions in Munnar are completely dominated by those with political affiliations, she says that the channel of communication between the workers and the management is obstructed by the unions with their own agendas.
“Even in those measly wages, deductions are made for electricity and for the rice that the company gives. With the remaining amount that the workers get, will they feed their family or put their children in school or acquire property? Wages have increased a little now but so has cost of living," she points out.
She adds that 10 years ago, around 2500 workers were provided land patta by the government. “Those people have still not seen their land. They just have the patta and are waiting to know the location. Only in the run up to the elections they (government) are giving lands to people, that too in phases. Initially for some people they gave 10 cents and the most recent instalment of five cents was given to some other people,” she adds. She has been independently fighting for the government to provide the land to the workers for the past five years.
Gomathi who started with the Pembilai Orumai had joined the CITU (a union of the CPI(M)). She left the CITU in 2017 and has been at loggerheads with the CITU and CPI(M) since then.
Asked about the events that transpired the incident on August 13, when Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan visited Pettimudi, Gomathi said that she knew about the visit only the previous night from TV channels.
“All these problems are because of Pinarayi Vijayan only,” she says, "We are living like slaves here. There is no reservation for the children of estate workers here nor do we have a decent work environment.
She also said that the landslide and the Karipur Air Crash happened on the same day, but the compensation for victims was starkly different. “Pinarayi Vijayan announces Rs 10 lakh relief for those who died in the air crash but for the Tamils who died here, the relief was Rs 5 lakh. Why this bias?” she asks.
So when she learnt that the Chief Minister was visiting, Gomathi decided to try and meet him and request him to do the needful to make the lives of estate workers in Munnar better. She allegedly went up to the policemen on security and inquired about the CM’s itinerary.
“I wanted to request the CM to take time off to meet the tea estate workers who have been demanding their own houses. Those who have died are gone, but there are more people who are living on the brink,” she says. Adding that she also wanted to discuss the allegations around allotment of land and houses under government schemes to those close to locally influential politicians, Gomathi says all she wanted was two minutes of the Chief Minister’s time.
“I have also won by people's votes just like him. I have met him before to speak on estate workers issues. Since the police didn't allow me, I sat on the road,” she recollects.
Gomathi says that if it was Oommen Chandy, the former Chief Minister of Kerala (from the UDF), he would have at least stopped the convoy to see what was going on. “He (Chandy) has some conscience. There I was, in the middle of a ruckus and Pinarayi didn’t even care about it. He just came and went away. I do not want another Pettimudi to happen here and that’s why I want to speak to him and highlight the issues,” she signs off.