Velankanni was good at her studies and she had no plans to become a tea estate worker like her parents. The ninth-class student of the Government High School at Vagamon pursued her studies seriously with dreams of securing a salaried job and relieving her family of its debt burden. Her parents still recall that many times they had told her to quit her studies, after they lost their jobs in a tea estate of Ram Bahadoor Tagore Tea Company three years ago. “We could not buy books or school uniform for her. She had borrowed a set of uniforms from a classmate who lived in our neighbourhood. One day that too wore out, and her classmates made fun of her,” says Velankanny’s mother Mariyammal.

What she does not add is that the same evening, the young Velankanni ended her life by hanging herself from the roof of their tiny cottage inside the estate.

The 14-year-old Velankanni’s is the fourth suicide in the past six months in tea estates of Peerumade taluk, the largest tea production centre in South India. And the 54-year-old Mariyammal and her husband are among the 70,000 plus plantation workers in Kerala who are in the grip of starvation following the closing down of several small and medium tea companies due to sharp fall in the prices of tea in the international market. Kerala has over a million people depending on tea plantations for their living. Out of 32 tea factories functioning in Peermade taluk, 18 have been closed down and 13 tea estates have been abandoned by their owners leaving around 30,000 people jobless in High Ranges alone.

The situation has reached such a critical stage that most of the companies are not in a position to pay the prescribed wages, apart from meeting other obligations as per service rules. There are plantations that have not paid wage arrears and have diverted the welfare funds of the workers into their operations in a desperate bid to stay afloat. In Peerumade taluk alone, employees have to receive Rs. 100 crores as pending wages. “I have to get Rs. 22,000 from my company as my wage arrears. There are many others like me who are yet to receive the wage arrears,” says Selvaraj, 32, a worker of the Cheenthilar first division of Peermade Tea Company. “There are around four hundred families and 2000 people in this division alone. For generations we have been working here. We have no other place to go and none of us know any other job than the estate work,” adds Selvaraj’s fellow worker Rajan.

As estates started closing down one after another, a number of men have already migrated to distant cities to try their luck as casual labourers. Many women have even turned to prostitution with the consent of their husbands to make both ends meet, as alternative employment is unavailable in the locality. “My daughter had run away some months ago. For months we had no news about her. A few days back she turned up and gave us Rs1000. She told us that she had got a job in the city. We don’t know what exactly she is doing,” says Revamma, 38, a worker in M M J Tea Estate, Vagamon. Her husband Tharanan died eight months ago due to starvation. Both she and her husband had to get a good amount as wage arrears when the owners of the estate simply abandoned it, leaving more than 2000 employees in the lurch.

Shammuthai, a 45-year-old woman, says many families in these estates can afford only one meal in two days. Since electricity connections have been cut off in these abandoned estates, taps run dry. Dispensaries which were functioning inside the estates are now closed down. Five persons, including a seven-month-old child have died in last six months without proper medical care. “My father was sick and was being treated in the dispensary inside the estate. When the estate was abandoned the dispensary stopped functioning. After that, my father didn’t get any treatment and died three months back,” says Christhu Raj, 19, son of Varghese who was an employee in the Peermade Tea Company that had been closed for three years. His family couldn’t afford to take him to hospitals in cities. They have to walk around 20 kms to reach outside the estate.

Until the WTO regime began, plantation products from Kerala found excellent markets and earned considerable foreign exchange.
It is not only the workers who are feeling the punch but the estate managers too. In some corporate plantations even the senior managers have not been paid their salaries for months. The crisis is hitting almost all sections in the tea plantation industry and the business activities related to it. Like Muhammed who was running a small provision shop in Cheenthilar Estate, many have had to down shutters. The nearby town of Elappara, usually one of the few centres of hectic commercial activities in Idukki district, now wears a deserted look on the weekly shopping days of workers.

Economists and trade union activists attribute the crisis to the negative impact of the globalization and World Trade Organisation. Until the WTO regime began, plantation products from Kerala – tea, coffee, cardamom and pepper - found excellent spice markets and earned considerable foreign exchange. India produces 850 million kilos of tea annually. The internal consumption is 670 million kilos. “By exporting 180 million kilos of tea India was accumulating a big sum in its foreign reserve. But the globalization-oriented new import policy has undermined the situation,” says P S Rajan, President, Hill Ranges Estate Employees Association.

When the Indian markets were opened to foreign goods, tea dusts from 13 countries started to flood in. Sri Lankan tea is imported by paying merely 7.4% of import duty. Though the import from Sri Lanka - 15 million kilos - is only a small percentage of the total Indian production, it is creating havoc in the South Indian market, especially in Kerala. “Producers from South India were demanding a sharp increase in the import duty for Sri Lankan tea. But the government increased the duty from 7 per cent to only 15 per cent”, says Lalaji Babu, General Secretary, All India Plantation Workers Federation, CITU. South Indian planters have asked the government to raise import duties on plantation crops. They argue that the customs duty on tea and coffee could be increased to bound rates even as per WTO norms. Nonetheless, the government has been going ahead with the move to bring down import tariffs on agricultural products under the WTO pact.

Surplus production and reductions in tariff barriers are said to be the main reasons for the present crisis in the tea gardens in the state. Prices of most plantation products - tea, coffee and rubber - in both domestic and international markets have been witnessing a steady decline over the years. Tea is the worst hit with the price well below the cost of production. The average auction price of the tea at present is Rs. 47 per kg against the cost of production of Rs. 60 per kg. “This is a market-driven humanitarian crisis. It is the result of the wrong policy initiatives of the Central Government under globalization agenda,” points out C. S Rajan.

Kerala’s labour minister Babu Divakaran also blames the WTO. “Tea industry the world over has plunged into a crisis owing to globalization policies. A small state like Kerala is incapable of solving the issue singularly. We are pleading our case with the Centre,” says Divakaran.

The tea growers associations in the state have called upon the government and the trade unions to jointly evolve strategies to rescue the closed tea factories and to solve the crisis. They argue that in the free import scenario, any further escalation in wages without corresponding increases in productivity would spell doom for the industry. The trade union leaders believe that slashing wages is a part of an attempt by the planters to use the crisis to exploit workers. The owners of tea companies have appealed for joint efforts by the management and workers to save the tea sector. But their appeal is not for a joint struggle to compel the government to reverse the import policy or to get out of WTO. “Instead, they are asking the workers to make Indian tea competitive by cutting down the cost of production through lowering the wages. Why should only the workers bear the burden of globalization?” asks Mr. Lalaji Babu. (Quest Features and Footage)