Generation after generation, why Kerala’s plantation workers don't have their own homes

Many families of plantation workers are stuck to the estate and the low-paying job for one reason alone – they don’t want to become homeless.
Representative image of women in tea estates
Representative image of women in tea estates
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Thirty-two-year old Satheesh remembers the days he used to earn up to Rs 1,000 per day working in a bakery in Kochi. But 10 years ago, he had to quit and move back to his hometown Munnar, to earn a meagre Rs 400 per day by continuing the work his parents and grandparents did. For Satheesh, this was a straightforward decision, because the odds were quite simple – either he could take up the work or his family would be thrown out of their home.

This is not just Satheesh’s story. Generation after generation, a majority of the population living in the plantation estates of Kerala are stuck to the place and the low-paying job for one reason alone – they don’t want to become homeless.

A survey conducted in the state by the Labour Department last year found that 32,591 families working in the plantation sector in Kerala do not own a house or possess land. All of these people live in ‘layams’ or line houses provided by the company that owns the estate. Once they retire at the age of 58, the worker and the family have to vacate their three-room dingy house. But for the workers, most of whom migrated from Tamil Nadu generations back, there is nowhere else to go. This forces the younger generation to take up their parents’ job so that they continue to have a place to live.

TNM talked to workers in Kerala’s Idukki and Wayanad, two districts famous for their tea, cardamom and other plantations, to understand the issues behind how they are caught in this loop.

Layams in Munnar

The vicious cycle

Satheesh is the third generation of Tamil migrants who came to Kerala from Tirunelveli district, hoping to make a living in the lush tea estates of Munnar.

“My grandfather’s place in Tirunelveli had severe water scarcity, so their crops failed. In Munnar, my grandparents got jobs in the tea estates and a house to live in. I haven’t seen them, but my two sisters and I grew up in the same house in which they lived,” he says, describing the shabby space consisting of a small hall, a bedroom and a kitchen where five of them lived. Satheesh now lives with his parents, his wife and two children, just a few kilometres from the landslide hit layams of Pettimudi.

Before and after photo of landslide hit spot in Pettimudi

When his parents retired, Satheesh took up work with the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations.

“When people retire, they have to vacate the line house if no one else in the family is working in the estate. Only then will the company hand over the retirement allowances like the provident fund (PF) amount and gratuity. In my case, there was no one else to take up the work, so I had to quit my well-paying job in Kochi and come back here,” Satheesh says in fluent in Malayalam with a tinge of Tamil accent. In Wayanad also, workers recount the same experience.

A lucky few among the workers do have their own land, mainly in Tamil Nadu, so they immediately vacate the layams after retirement. While a few others manage to buy land using their PF and gratuity, a vast majority struggle to find a place to live.

The workers say that the retirement amount they get is a maximum of Rs 2 lakh. This also largely depends on the numbers of days a person has worked through the years of employment.

“Firstly, there is no fixed monthly salary. My husband works for Rs 350 per day, this he gets at the end of the month for the total number of days he worked,” says 36-year-old Shaharban who lives near Chembra Hills in Meppadi panchayat of Wayanad district.

'Layams' amidst tea plantations in Munnar

She adds that even if he works all days of the month, after deducting the electricity bill, EMIs for loans taken from the company and other reductions like PF, what remains is about Rs 7,000.

“It’s with this small amount that we have to meet the monthly family expenses and education expenses of our children,” she says. Her husband, 42-year-old Jamaludheen, works in AVT’s cardamom plantation.

Though her husband’s retirement is more than 10 years away, Shaharban is constantly concerned about life after that. “My daughter is now in Class 12. By the time my husband retires, she’d have to be married and after that we’ll be left with no money to buy our own land. The condition is similar for other families living around us too,” Shaharban adds.

Though there are not many options left for those retiring and their families, they address the immediate issue of being homeless by some makeshift ‘adjustments’.

Temporary arrangements

“If there are vacancies, retired people often come back and work as temporary staff with no allowances. They are paid just the daily wages. In that case, they can continue to live in the layams. But such a situation is not common,” says Satheesh.

Meanwhile, renting out line houses that are not in use is rampant. “For instance, I presently live in Malappuram district in the house that I inherited from my parents. So another family now lives in the line house that is registered in my name. The family gives me a small rent for this, but they’ll have to meet other expenses like electricity bill, etc.,” says Azees, a plantation worker in Wayanad.

‘Youth are educated, aspire for better employment’

Though the basic living conditions of the plantation workers, including the dilapidated houses or the dilemma of being homeless, has not changed, the younger generation of these families is increasingly more educated.

“Earlier, there were not many opportunities for the youth from these families. After primary education, they would straightway start working in the estates. There was a rush of youth who wanted to work in the plantations. But this has changed now, there is no organic rush, youngsters are aspiring for better employment. If they can tackle the issue of housing, they seek better jobs per their educational qualification,” KK Sahad, Meppadi panchayat president, tells TNM.

Thirty-seven-year-old Sahad, who also hails from a family of plantation workers, recalls stories about his mother who started working in the estates at 14. Sahad, who is himself an estate worker, has inspired many in the region. After winning the local body polls as a CPI(M) candidate in 2015, he was selected as the panchayat president, following which he took a leave for five years from the estate.

KK Sahad

Satheesh states that youngsters in Munnar region too do not wish to continue the odd jobs at the plantation for meagre money. “The present generation of youngsters are well-educated, with most of them having a degree. They wish for better living conditions. The only problem they face is not having a home of their own for their family. If there’s anything holding the youth back, it’s only the issue of housing,” Satheesh points out.

Government housing schemes

Time and again, various regimes in the state have brought in schemes to address the issue of the landless and houseless plantation workers to a small extent. But these projects, people and even officials say, have not been implemented effectively.

In 2009, the VS Achuthanandan led Left government started a project for the landless plantation workers. Hundreds of acres of land were identified in Kuttiyar Valley of Devikulam gram panchayat in Idukki district to be given to 3,000 families.

“In the VS Achuthanandan period, a list of 3,000 people was made by taking lots. About 700 people were officially provided land – 170 from Munnar panchayat and the rest from Devikulam,” says Govintha Sami, Devikulam panchayat president.

But land was not distributed to the remaining families as proposed. Officials state that problems arose with agents cheating the government and the residents by posing as applicants.

“It was only six months ago that the project was revived. The government again made a list of 2,500 applicants. But when the re-survey was done, it was found that there’s actually not enough land to give 10 cents to each family, so it was reduced to five cents by the current government. The 2009 survey was done without even visiting the site,” notes Govintha Sami.

He also adds that there are issues in the land allotted to 400 of the families, because much of it is marsh land. “The process of finding some other land for these families was going on when the Pettimudi landslide happened. Since then, the Tahsildar and other officials have been busy,” he adds.

While Govintha Sami, who is also a member of the CPI which is part of the ruling Left front, states that 2,500 people have been officially allotted land, Munnar panchayat president R Karuppusamy – a member of the Opposition Congress – informs TNM that the paperwork is ongoing and not everyone has been allotted land.

Karuppusamy also criticises the disparity in the land distribution among Munnar and Devikulam residents, despite the fact that the Kuttiyar Valley project was meant for people from both panchayats.

“Only 10% of the land is given to the people of Munnar. When 10 cents was given for 700 people, only 170 families from Munnar panchayat got land. And now, in the 2,500 people list published by the present government, only 385 are from Munnar, rest are from Devikulam. We had written a letter to the state government addressing this concern, but there has been no reply,” he says.

In Wayanad, Sahad says that houses were built for 900 plantation workers in the past four years as part of the government’s Life Mission project. The 900 families owned the land and aid was to be given to construct houses. However, he also adds that the aid has not yet started.

‘Our concerns are not given importance’

Looking ahead, people of the region, including activists, say that the future of the plantation sector workers does not look very promising.

Speaking to TNM, Gomathi, Pembilai Orumai leader who is also a member of the Devikulam block panchayat, says that the concerns of the plantation workers have not been given their due importance by the changing governments.

“Of the landslide hit families in Pettimudi, 10 were actually no longer working in the estate. They had retired but were living there as they didn’t have any other place to go to. It even took about a week for Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan to visit the disaster hit spot. But he and other ministers rushed to Karipur when a flight crashed there, later on the same day. The people are noticing all this,” Gomathi says.

Gomathi at the burial ground of Pettimudi landslide victims

She also raises allegations of widespread discrepancies even in the housing project. “If one takes a look at the list of people who have been allotted land, it can be seen that they are all close aides, relatives or acquaintances of some politicians here. The commoners are left in the lurch,” she says.

“I’ve been raising the issue of land, of being homeless for the past many years. But they (government officials) allege that I have Maoist links. Why do they say that? Because I’m demanding land?”

Gomathi, who is herself a plantation worker, recently gave in writing to the company where she is registered that her son will be her blood relative who will take up the estate work after her.

“This is the state of the people here, our children are pushed into this, they are denied a better life,” she says.

Watch: How the floods changed the lives of cardamom cultivators in Idukki

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