It’s time to relocate houses of plantation workers in Kerala away from hilly regions

For generations, Tamil plantation workers in Munnar have been living in the same houses provided by the tea company, precariously situated near hill slopes.
Estate quarters for plantation workers in Pettimudi
Estate quarters for plantation workers in Pettimudi
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“My parents have not spoken to us properly or eaten food after the landslide destroyed our house,” said Anilkumar, a survivor of the Pettimudi landslide in Kerala’s Munnar on August 6, which claimed 65 lives. Son of tea plantation workers, Anilkumar grew up in a single-room quarter provided by the company, and so did his parents. “After the landslide, the company wanted us to temporarily move into its estate houses in Kadalar (in Munnar). But the area is surrounded by hills on all four sides. My parents shuddered when they saw the hilly area.” 

Nemakkadu Estate Lines is located deep in a hilly area in Peetimudi, a tourist spot in Idukki district’s Rajamala ward of Munnar panchayat under Devukulam block. The tea estate belongs to the Kanan Devan Hills Plantations Company Private Limited (KDHP), a subsidiary of Tata Tea Limited. For generations, the company workers have been living in barrack-like houses, neatly arranged in rows (called layams) near hill slopes where the tea garden sprawls out. These quarters have single rooms, a kitchen and a verandah.

On the late-night of August 6 this year, when the plantation workers and their families were asleep, a massive chunk of rock and debris from a hill above these settlements came rolling down on two lines of houses. Sixty-five people, including children, were buried alive, and it was after days of intense search operations that several bodies were recovered. Scores of other families, like Anilkumar, are still in shock and disbelief that they survived.

“Our furniture, my B.Tech certificates and a bike that I had bought only 15 days before the landslide are still lying buried deep in that rubble and slush. We are scared to go back and retrieve those items,” said Anilkumar, who is working as a forest watcher. 

Although Kerala has been witnessing landslides in Idukki and other hilly regions across the state — significantly in the last three years — several residents, local leaders and experts whom TNM spoke to, unequivocally said that Pettimudi was never prone to landslides. In fact, the Kerala government, based on a report by the National Centre for Earth Science Studies, said that these estates are not located in the hazard zones. Hence, the landslide on August 6 caught these residents by surprise.

A line of estate quarters in Pettimudi before the landslide on August 6

However, what was probably overlooked was that these houses were located below the hills and that climate change, too, was playing a part. The incessant and heavy rainfall in the first week of August gradually increased the load on the soil of the hillsides, causing slope failure, and in turn, a landslide. These houses, unfortunately, were in the path of the debris movement.

The landslide in Pettimudi washed away several houses and its residents  

As Kerala had just about recovered from the massive floods in 2018, heavy rains in August 2019 had triggered large-scale landslides, notably in two regions — Kavalappara in Malappuram district and Puthumala in Wayanad district. In both cases, the majority of the victims were the plantation workers.

And while many argued that the Pettimudi area was never influenced by any human activities, the role of climate change and its evolving effects (such as unusual rainfall distribution pattern) can no longer be discounted.   

Amidst uncertainty over rising geological incidents across the state — arguably triggered by heavy rains, change in soil and terrain condition, change in the land pattern by human intervention — many plantation workers said it is time that the company relocate them or build new quarters for them, but far from the hills and mountains.   

Why tea estates, workers are near hilly areas

Tea is a perennial leafy crop that is highly susceptible to waterlogging, although there are other varieties, too. Hence, to prevent waterlogging and maintain a low temperature (to preserve the flavour of the tea leaves), tea plants are grown on hilly slopes in many regions. 

Set up in the late 1800s during the British era, the tea companies in Kerala built quarters for its field, factory and other employees as well as their families closer to these tea gardens or estates.

“There was a time when there was no proper transportation system, and it was one tea estate per factory. Today, it is a centralised system, where it is one factory for three to four estates,” explained Vazhoor Soman, Chairman of Kerala State Warehousing Corporation and a member of the All India Trade Union Congress (AIUTC), who has been vocal about the rights and issues of tea plantation workers.

Although the infrastructure evolved with the means of transportation, what remained stagnant over centuries is the housing system for its workers, including its location and condition. “It works in favour of the company as it ensures continuous work and saves power,” he added.

These hilly regions command certain characteristic features that attract tourists throughout the year — the fog-enshrouded mountains that offer picturesque views; and chilly yet balmy weather ideal for holidaymakers. A thriving tourist spot means raising resorts and other infrastructure on the rocky mountains. This is besides the stone and granite quarries hazardously working in such regions.

While some mountainous areas have succumbed to human-induced land alterations, experts have also been pointing to the role of unpredictably changing rainfall patterns, possibly goaded by climate change.

The victims of these manmade and natural changes are the residents near these mountains, which are mostly the plantation workers and their families. 

Why houses must be moved away from hills

Climate change, geological changes and accessibility to better infrastructure make a case for an urgent call to action.

In fact, a similar concern runs among the tea estate workers of Ponmudi, a hill station located in Peringamala panchayat, Thiruvananthapuram district. Ponmudi is a popular tourist hotspot in Kerala, known for its trekking trail, the Nilgiri Tahr and a breathtaking view from the hilltop. However, in recent years, the tea plantation workers, who have been living in this surreal hill station for decades, have been going to sleep in fear. They are thankful to wake up alive every morning.

An estate quarters near the Ponmudi hills

“Unlike Munnar, the layams in Ponmudi are located higher up the hills. These quarters have been inhabited for generations, and are now in a dilapidated condition, with leaky roofs and cracks on the walls. Many are on the brink of collapsing. We have been risking our lives and residing under these hills,” said 40-year-old Kumar, who has been living in the house since he was born and has been working as a plantation worker at Merchiston Tea Estate since the age of 18.

“It was the landslide in Kavalappara and Puthumula in 2019 that fuelled our fears,” he added.

As Kerala had just about recovered from the massive floods in 2018, heavy rains in August 2019 had triggered large-scale landslides, notably in two regions — Kavalappara in Malappuram district and Puthumala in Wayanad district. In both cases, the majority of the victims were the plantation workers.

A 10-acre coconut plantation was at the base of a hillside in Kavalappara, located in the Pothukal panchayat, Malappuram. Houses and residents vanished in the mudslide, burying them more than 50 feet deep, according to reports. In Wayanad, estates quarters were among the properties (apart from a temple and mosque) that were washed away. The disaster claimed more than 17 lives.

In Ponmudi, over 300 plantation families reside in such line houses, located near hilltops.

“Fortunately, nothing untoward has happened yet. However, these layams are sitting precariously near these towering hills, where there is a heavy wind current” Jisha AR, Councillor, Ponmudi Ward, pointed out. “Most of these quarters are so decrepit that after every rain, a few roof tiles fall on them; they have to put it back to continue living there.”

Shafi, a former member of the Peringammala village panchayat in Ponmudi, said that despite protests, petitions and representations, the tea company has not acted on fixing these quarters. “It is not just the company, but the government should also take initiative in relocating these workers. They have been risking their lives and residing under these hills,” he stressed.   

According to the Department of Soil Survey and Soil Conservation, the hill soils are “mostly friable (crumbly) and subject to heavy soil erosion”.

The point where the landslide took place in Pettimudi will not see another disruption, said Arun PR, Scientist, the Groundwater Division of the Centre For Water Resources Development and Management under the Kerala government.

“The destruction is already done. However, the adjoining sloppy regions are still vulnerable, and if this rain distribution pattern continues, more estate houses in the region could be washed away,” added Arun, who has visited Pettimudi on numerous occasions for surveys. In fact, one of the landslide victims, Achyuthan (fondly called Achu ettan), used to accompany Arun and his team on these surveys. 

A house precariously ensconced in the midst of a hilly region in Pettimudi

Arun attributed the recurrence of landslides over the past three years to the high-intensity rains, especially in high degree sloppy areas. By high-intensity, he was particularly pointing to the distribution pattern of the rain over a period of time.

“Let’s say, a region normally receives 700 millimetres of rainfall spread over the entire month of June. Now imagine receiving the same amount of rainfall in just two to three days. What was a distributed rainfall has now turned into concentrated rainfall. As a result, the capacity of the soil to withstand such an amount of water within a short period of time is affected. It adds to the weight of soil and causes erosion,” explained the geologist.

The rainfall not only impacts the land condition but the electricity supply, too, something that Anilkumar had not hoped for during the landslide.

During monsoon, the supply is constantly disrupted when the strong winds in hilly areas like Pettimudi knock the trees on the power lines. “We did not have electricity for almost five days prior to the landslide. Since the torches were not charged, we could not carry out an immediate search for other residents on that fateful night,” recounted Anilkumar.

While a hospital is more than four kilometres away for Pettimudi residents, the roads in these hilly areas are untarred and make timely access a race against time. The estate workers of Ponmudi, too, lament about the far-flung hospitals (almost 20 kilometres away), as well as the water pipes infested with worms and centipedes, contributed by the moist conditions in these regions.

What can be done

Time and again, the media has highlighted the poor conditions of these estate houses, including one room and one kitchen for more than 10 members of a family. However, Vazhoor Soman suggested that housing complexes with adequate facilities in centrally located places can resolve the problem.

“These houses can be two or three storeys, with bathroom and water connection in each house, unlike the existing condition where some houses have toilets outside and a common water pipe,” he said.

“Even if these quarters are located far from the estate, the company can arrange a bus to transport the workers,” Soman stressed.

According to Soman, if the state government agrees to give Rs 5 lakh each as a subsidy to plantation workers (tea, coffee cardamom and rubber), the families can build their own houses with at least two rooms. 

Many experts like Soman and TV Sajeev, principal scientist of forest entomology at the Kerala Forest Research Institute (KFRI), said even if relocation is not viable, building houses with concrete material can at least save these houses from being washed away.

Currently, these estate quarters are built using stones and mud during the British era. “A concrete structuring with adequate facilities will not only make the houses sturdier to survive a landslide with minor chafings, but will make it humane, livable, and save lives,” said Sajeev. 

During a brief conversation with TNM, Mohan Varghese, Vice-President, Kanan Devan Hills Plantation Company, attributed the unexpected landslide to the heavy rainfall this year and the ill-effects of global warming. He also stated that these hilly regions are safer than the town in Munnar, referring to the havoc during the 2018 floods.

Although the VP acknowledged that climate change is posing a threat in the hilly area, he did not offer any beneficial steps for the estate workers, beyond suggesting, "We have to analyse the soil and vulnerability areas." An email seeking details went unanswered.

With a sigh of resignation, Anilkumar said, “If the company builds a house in another hilly area, we will have to live there. Since we do not have our own land, a house or steady income to rent a house, we will have to stick it out.”


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