Munnar workers take fight to polls

Munnar workers take fight to polls

In September last year, a spirited group of woman labourers in Munnar’s tea estates had introduced Kerala to a new form of agitation.

Their informal collective — Pembilai Orumai — fought for better wages and living conditions on its own, keeping away politically affiliated trade unions. Eight months later, the labourers’ collective largely comprising Tamil settlers is taking the fight to polling stations by fielding general secretary J Rajeswary in the Devikulam constituency.

Electoral politics, however, is more necessity than statement of power for the labourers. There is no final word, yet, on the government’s promises of relief based on which the stir was called off. Pembilai Orumai is also facing a credibility crisis — Gomathy, one of its original leaders who had won a block panchayat seat in the local body election, later moved to the CPM. It has been a setback for the movement’s leaders who claimed that the agitation itself was the result of the failure of trade unions. Pembilai Orumai had also won two grama panchayat wards in the local body election.

CPM has fielded sitting MLA S Rajendran in this SC-reserved constituency. Rajeswary acknowledges that the challenge in taking on established political systems is immense but hopes people will accept her as one of them, as someone who went out on the street to fight their fight. “There were people who asked us — “how can we be sure that you won’t desert this movement like Gomathy did”? But now, we are a more organised unit. They know that we were the ones who fought for the labourers, not the established political parties,” Rajeswary told DH. The All India Anna Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam is also trying to find its base in the region with a huge Tamil population. The party has fielded R M Dhanalakshmy from the constituency.

CPM veteran V S Achuthanandan had joined Pembilai Orumai protesters in September while his own party’s MLA Rajendran himself was attempting damage control, staging a separate sit-in protest for the labourers. But is factionalism killing the movement? “We were about 13,000 when we organised the September agitation. About 1,000 or 2,000 may have moved out, mostly because of threats from husbands who have links with organised trade unions. But when we approach these women, they assure me that they’ll vote for me. The husbands don’t have to know,” Rajeswary said.

The 45-year-old Rajeswary is a fourth-generation settler labourer in Idukki. Her sick husband has been off work for many years. Rajeswary has a daughter — the candidate’s affidavit shows a Rs-1.4 lakh loan availed for her nursing education — and a son. The total value of Rajeswary’s assets is about 2.92 lakh, almost the whole of it the value of 13 sovereigns of her gold jewellery.

“I’ve pledged some of the gold. People who support me have come together with their one or two grams of gold. We’ve somehow managed to get the posters and banners done. Now, it’s about how I convince the people that I have the ability and the intent,” Rajeswary said.

Is the campaign focused a bit too much on the labourer community? “No, we are raising major issues in the constituency; lack of roads, hospitals, adequate drinking water — these are all issues which I myself identify with because I’ve lived here all along,” she said.

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