We are doing slavery ‘happily’, says tea estate workers’ rights activist Gomathi
Company officials failed to tell the outside world about the Pettimudy landslide even when they were informed within one hour of the incident, a government report has alleged.
On August 06, at around 10:30 pm, 30 small houses in four rows where 22 Kannan Devan Hills Produce (KDHP) workers’ families resided, were washed away in a landslide claiming 66 lives. The bodies were found from a river, 14 km from where the houses were situated. Four more are still missing.
Around 90 families reside in those small houses built in 16 rows. The houses were built before 1950 and renovated in 2000. The report alleges that keeping the workers in poor conditions can be seen only as a human rights violation.
Stating that “procrastination is the foundation of all disasters”, the report prepared by Binu Joseph, Munnar Special Tahsildar, says that a 12 hours delay occurred in initiating the search and rescue operations in Pettimudy.
“The field officer of the KDHP was informed within one hour of the incident. The company officials at the Managers Bungalow were also told. But they failed to inform the outside world and the officials,” the report claims.
The report adds that since August 02, due to heavy rain, there was no power supply.
“And the batteries on the cellphone towers in those areas drained. So, there was no network connectivity when the landslide happened. Additionally, the Periyavara bridge damaged in the 2018 flood was not fit for transport. Additionally, all the roads leading to the landslide spot was damaged by heavy rain, which again delayed rescue teams ‘arrival,” the report reveals.
A 2018 landslide map prepared by Kerala State Disaster Management Authority had marked Munnar as a high-risk area.
Talking to The Lede, Deepan Chakravarthy, who lost his father, brother, sister-in-law, their two children, and his wife, confirmed that the workers had informed the company officials within one hour of the incident.
“But they delayed informing the officials outside who could initiate search and rescue. The workers in the neighbouring houses sprang into action. But the muddy water stopped them,” Deepan said.
“I didn’t die because I had gone to a relative’s house in a nearby town,” he said adding that if the company had acted on time, several lives would have been saved.
Among the 66 lives lost, there were a six-month-old baby and a 63-year-old person.
Meanwhile, G Gomathi, a workers’ rights activist in Munnar who shot to fame in 2015 through the Pembilai Orumai (Women Unity) protest demanding decent pay, said that they are forced to work like slaves only to have these small houses.
“The small houses are not owned by workers. They are provided by the company. If you stop work, then you have to leave those small houses. Unfortunately, these workers don’t know any other job or have other places to live in. So, for generations, these workers will continue to work only because they want shelter,” Gomathi told The Lede.
“Now, young boys and girls are agreeing to work as tea plantation workers only to have a shelter. We are doing slavery ‘happily’ because we have to earn money for our daily food and have a shelter,” Gomathi said.
According to Gomathi, the houses are too small.
“If we put two cots, then there would be no space to walk. There is no rent for the house. But we have to pay power supply,” Gomathi said, adding that this slavery will continue till labour laws are amended.
The working conditions of tea plantation workers in the country are still governed by the Plantation Labour Act (PLA), 1951, administered by the Ministry of Labour & Employment and enforced by the concerned state governments, which, inter alia, provide for basic welfare services and amenities namely housing, medical and primary education, water supply and sanitation.
“Unfortunately, we don’t get anything from the tea estate owners. We are ignored,” Gomathi added.
Meanwhile, Kerala Revenue Minister E Chandrasekharan has ordered a detailed probe into the lapses made by Kannan Devan Hills plantation (KDHP) authorities in connection with the Pettimudy tragedy.
The Revenue Minister has instructed the Revenue Principal Secretary, Dr Jayathilak, to hand over the investigation to Disaster Management Commissioner, A Koushikan IPS, and to include experts in the investigation team.
The action was taken based on the special task force’s report which stated that an investigation should be held to inspect whether there were any lapses in communicating the disaster to the outside world.
The investigation team has been told to file the report within the stipulated period. The team has also been instructed to submit recommendations to increase the precautions in disaster-prone areas if a similar tragedy repeats in the future.
The Lede has written to the KDHP. This report will be updated when a reply is received.