Idukki : The place wears the look of a deserted village. There are just a few crumbling estate lanes, unmotorable roads, a few workers moving almost like shadows in the hot sun and aged women sitting on the veranda of the lanes as if waiting for someone’s arrival. Their shrunken eyes hide the long years of hard labor when the tea estates functioned normally. Now, without a job and nothing to lean on, they can only hope against hope that their sunset days will be free from abject penury. A tea factory that once used to work 24 hours a day, set up by the Britishers, is now a skeletal building with a few tractors and old vehicles left to rust in the closed courtyard.
We are on an estate at Kottamala in Peerumade in Idukki owned by MMJ Plantations. When it was shut down in 2013, around 2,500 workers were rendered jobless. Their provident fund payments, gratuity, and other allowances had been pending for long even before the estate was formally closed down. Now, only about a 1,000 workers live in the lanes and there is none in the estate quarters where the administrative staff once lived. The quarters, roofless with gaping holes that once used to be doors and windows, themselves are largely untraceable, with a thick overgrowth hiding them. Most of the Tamil labourers have returned to their native villages . Those who have chosen to stay back have done so as they have nowhere else to go. They have been living here for more than three generations since the British-Scottish planters’ departure.
Their only income is the money they earn by plucking and selling green leaves, thanks to the intervention of estate unions. With none to tend to the tea plants , the yield has fallen drastically. The leaves the workers pluck are transported to various factories in the area by agents contracted by the trade unions. After meeting the transportation costs, the families get a meagre income with which they buy their rations and a few other essentials. Some of them rear cattle and a few young people trek nearly 7 km every morning to work as labourers outside the estate area. The lanes have no water supply and, for the women, it is often a longer trek to fetch water.
Disease and poverty have taken a toll on Kottamala and there are many aged people living on the estate in miserable conditions, starving and without medical care. Crises hit the Peerumade tea plantations nearly 15 years ago when the international tea prices plummeted. Many estates, including Peerumade Tea Company Ltd, and various divisions of other tea plantations which suffered continuous losses, were closed down. Although the estates were shut down, the company that owned the tea estates initially continued to maintain infrastructure such as roads, water supply, living quarters, hospital and school. But all these have now deteriorated to irredeemable levels.
Unlike the other tea estates, most of the traditional labourers in the Kottamala division were Keralites who had migrated to this promised land long ago. Many are still there. “Many of the plantation workers have died without getting their retirement benefits and there is no sign of their kin getting the benefits,” says Sadasivan Pillai, a former estate supervisor, his wife, with a broken hand after a recent fall, standing stoically beside him. “We have nowhere to go. We have been living here for three generations,” he says.
Many labourers to whom The Hindu spoke said that the estate had functioned smoothly till it changed hands. Under the Scottish planters, the village produced everything needed here and that provided additional income to the families. The company looked after the medical needs and a hospital functioned with full complement of staff, including doctors, under the estate management. Children of the estate labourers were provided education both in Tamil and Malayalam medium and they were given assistance to pursue higher studies. Now, the school is a roofless building, where dogs and cattle wander, and the hospital an abandoned building without roof and a thick undergrowth threatening to envelop it.
The tea factory is a picture of neglect, waiting to collapse any day. .They have vivid memories of the factory working round the clock, with the rich aroma of high quality tea wafting in the air in the three divisions.
“Even the first and second grade tea produced and exported abroad under the Scottish planters and the companies that owned the estate later were of high quality. An important feature of Kottamala was that it had a disciplined workforce who never had to launch agitations to secure their demands, quite unlike other plantations where agitations were a regular feature ,” a worker said.
Those are but memories hovering in a terrain of hopelessness. “There is talk that the estate might be given on lease, but we know that there is only a remote chance of this happening as several vested interests are at work here. Nobody wants to take the risk of running plantations in the current global market scenario. May be, a hint of what is in store for us is the sprouting of so many resorts around this village which has the rolling hills of Wagamon on its west side,” said a worker, as the lengthening shadows slowly covered the estate lanes and the crumbling factory.