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Munnar:

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Anyone who closely observes political developments in Kerala would know Gomati Akka. It was in 2015, a union of Women who called themselves ‘Pembulai Orumai’ started a strike in Munnar for the wage rights of Plantation Workers. Gomati later contested for Panchayat elections and is now a ward member. ‘She is popularly known as Akka’ which is sister in Tamil. In a conversation with The Woke Journal, Gomati Akka opens up on what went wrong with Pembulai Orumai, the situation at Munnar and the Abhimanyu murder.

How was your entry into politics?

I was born and brought up in a one-room house at Devikulam estate. There are 7 of us. Both my parents were plantation workers. I had a very difficult childhood and I grew up watching them. There were company schools and when I was 6 years I was admitted to one of them. None of us owns any land. We can’t live without politics in Munnar. It is through Union that we receive loans. Hence we are forced to choose sides. We were always under their control.

When was the inception of Pembulai Orumai? How did the strike start?

I was a factory worker and I was informed that our bonus was struck down to 10% while earlier it was 20%. At this point, we decided not to collect the bonus and went for a strike. KDHPL (Kannan Devan Hills Plantation Limited) cited dips in profit and falling tea prices as a reason for this. We received a salary of Rs 232 per day while we worked for 12 hours. We were not given any incentives. Though political parties were informed, after negotiations with the company they told us, that they will see to it the next year. Workers were deeply dissatisfied.

We took this as an opportunity to launch the strike; the first strike of Pembilai Orumai. It was on September 2nd that the workers asked me to join the strike. We marched from Devikulam to Munnar on September 5th and started raising slogans. Workers from the neighbouring estates joined us slowly. By Monday, most of them had joined the strike.

Though a reverse campaign was done by the police, the strike continued and started receiving media attention. It was Yadu Narayanan of Reporter channel and Sangeet of Asianet News who helped us to take the issue outside and into the media. They received death threats for the same. I wasn’t bothered about the consequences. The strike went on for 9 days and the company agreed to hike the bonus to 20%. Though the strike was a success, life became a  struggle for us after that.

Then, we decided to continue the strike to increase the wages to Rs.500. We were called for a talk with the then CM Oommen Chandy who told us that he didn’t realize that the plantation workers were undergoing such troubles and assured us that he would look into it. It was around the same time that Lissy joined Pembulai Orumai. Slowly, Pembilai Orumai decided to contest in Panchayat elections but there were disagreements regarding the candidature. This further lead to its split.

Who owns the land at Munnar?

Outsiders have ownership over the land in Munnar. The plantation workers here don’t have their own land. A lot of politicians have land with false documents. But no one wants to make it an issue. All political parties help out each other in this regard. I am witch-hunted because I am not scared to speak out loud about these issues. Many of them own thousands of acres. Can’t they give at least 5 cents each to these plantation workers? The workers tell me, Gomathi, at least get us 3 cents of land. That is all that they ask for. Even the media is scared to bring up these issues to the forefront.

The land issue is one major problem that we are facing. After Pembulai Orumai protest in 2015, the issue was not given any further importance. I’m waiting for the weather to clear up. I’ll fight alone. This land belongs to us. It doesn’t matter who would join and who would not. I’ll fight.

What about education and jobs? 

Most of the kids won’t go for higher education as their primary medium is Tamil. What is the point of education? Our kids have to work at plantations or cottage anyway. No one is really bothered. When we speak about this, we are asked to go to Tamil Nadu. Tamil Nadu isn’t our home state. This is.

How do you find the work at the Panchayat?

I am not given a space to work. If I visit some house in my ward, the company complains to the authority and they have to face issues because of me.

Are you getting good responses from the plantation workers when you speak to them about revamping the strike? Are they scared?

Won’t they be scared? It was yesterday that a case was filed against 25 of them who were part of the protest movements that happened in 2015. They were booked for blocking the highway road. Initially, they arrested Manoj, claiming that he is associated with CPM (Maoist). They also spread this narrative that it was Manoj who instigated me to take up this strike. This is my issue. This is where I grew up and I will fight for it. Why would anyone instigate me?

What happened with Pembulai Orumai?

It is not functional now. M.M Mani issue came up, and they were scared of me. It was people within who made an accusation that I went to AIADMK. The trust within the organisation was broken.

When was it that you decided to cooperate with CPM and what changed this decision?

It was my father who asked me to join any of the political organisation, post the split in Pembulai Orumai. A senior MLA from the party assured that 10 cents of land would be given to plantation workers and also added that they would nominate me as the representative of Plantation Labour Committee to negotiate wage issues with the tea company. That is why I joined the party. But none of these promises was kept and I found it unethical, which is when I decided to leave.

Is there a possibility for an alternative platform here at Munnar?

There is a need for such a front. But they won’t let us grow. It is difficult to live without political participation here at Munnar. All the major political parties have their union set up. And no one can afford to live with the wage that they are receiving. It is only through the Union that you receive loans. And it is with these loans that we sustain. So once you are part of a Union, you are always indebted to them. That is the reality of Munnar. Even when there are police cases, we have to bring party leaders. The police only listen to party leaders.

Why was it that mainstream political parties didn’t take up this issue?

For years, we have been silent about all forms of oppression. We were treated as slaves. The wage is low and we have single room houses. We don’t have quality hospitals or schools. And for years, all these parties have been ruling and things haven’t changed. We knew that the parties were making use of us and so, we didn’t trust them to take up the issue. It is only after the Pembulai Orumai strike received enough media attention that they were ready to take up our issues. They were rather forced to.

What is the situation of plantation workers as of now?

Think about working from morning to evening in this weather. They are neither provided with shoes nor raincoats. The wage is too less. When Pinarayi Vijayan came here, he promised an increase in wages. But it wasn’t done. And no one is bothered. It is just the government which changes. The situation here remains the same. Now they are bringing workers from Assam and Northern states and are asking us to go back to Tamil Nadu. Why should we leave? We belong here.

What about Caste practices?

Caste is prevalent here. For example, look at the Chakliya community. Their language is Telugu and they migrated from Andhra. They are given only manual scavenging jobs at panchayats and cottages. Isn’t that how caste is practised? Their land was snatched away by outsiders and politicians. Resorts and cottages are made in such places. Forward caste people buy land in their name from the government and use it.

Media attention is reverted to Munnar post the murder of Abhimanyu. What is your say on the same?

It is always an Adivasi or Dalit who gets murdered. Look at his Facebook post, he speaks of hunger. That is exactly the situation here. We make it to the news stories when issues happen but then it slowly vanishes away. They speak of single room houses in Vattavada. But we were always living in such houses. That is the social reality of this place. Now they are planning to build a library in his name. They could have made a village in his name. They could have made homes for the homeless plantation workers in Munnar.

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