Spice route: To Kerala, in search of livelihood

Theni residents want politicians to find a solution to the lack of job opportunities that is pushing women to cross over to Kerala for work
Sakulathumettu in Idukki is just 11 kilometres from Devaram in Tamil Nadu, but due to lack of road connectivity
Sakulathumettu in Idukki is just 11 kilometres from Devaram in Tamil Nadu, but due to lack of road connectivity Photo | Express

THENI: Many an election season has passed; many decades and many promises. Still, the plight of majority of Theni residents, mostly women labourers, remains unchanged, as the changing governments in the last 50 years — both DMK and AIADMK — are yet to walk their poll talk on creating job opportunities and road connectivity to Sakulathumettu in Kerala.

Fingers crossed, the 20,000 odd women labourers — from Cumbum, Bodinayakanur and Kumili — who take the early morning jeep to the cardomom plantations in Idukki in the nearby Kerala state due to lack of work in their native are hoping their ordeal would end after this Lok Sabha election.

Ask the women, they would say earning Rs 350 to Rs 450 a day is not easy. They have to board the jeep, thickly packed with some 20 people, at 5 am, negotiate the twists, turns and hair-pin curves for a distance of 60 km to reach Idukki, putting their mental and physical health at risk.

Parvathi (name changed) (38) from Uthamapalayam area, a single parent working in cardamom plantation in Idukki for over seven years, said she would get only Rs 200 if she works in her native. “Planting and harvesting in most agriculture fields here are mechanised now, and the land owners engage workers only for removing the weeds.

I have three school-going children, and am the only bread-winner in my family. To go to Idukki plantations for work, I have to wake up around 3.30 am, do the household chores before boarding the jeep at 6 am so that I could get a weekly sum of Rs 2,100. “This sum apart, we don’t get any others benefits including bonus or insurance,” she said.

the  estate workers  have to travel 70 kilometres to reach the destination on 
a daily basis | express
the estate workers have to travel 70 kilometres to reach the destination on a daily basis | express

Another estate worker Nirmala (name changed) (25) from Cumbum said for 15-year-old girls to 60-year-old women, the only option to earn a livelihood is to work in the cardamom plantations in Idukki hills. “If I work as an agriculture labourer in Cumbum, I will get only Rs 250. That’s why I take the arduous trip to Kerala five days a week,” she said, adding even if the jeep in which they travel meet with an accident, they won’t get any compensation from the owners of the plantations.

“It is difficult for women to travel in the hilly areas on a daily basis, especially during menstruation. But, we don’t have any other option,” she said.

A social activist, on request of anonymity, said it is purely exploitation of labour, especially women. “These women could be enrolled as unorganised sector labourers. At least they would get benefits from the welfare board. But, the labour department is turning a blind eye to their plight. Policemen are vying with each other to get a posting at Theni and Kerala checkposts so that they could make some quick bucks,” he said, adding the policemen are collecting Rs 20 to Rs 50 as bribe from each of the overcrowded jeeps that ferry workers.

The activists also alleged many politicians in Tamil Nadu own cardamom plantations in Idukki. “So, they are creating a stumbling block whenever proposals for development projects in the area come up. Earlier, former collector Muthuveeran had given tailoring training to these women to get continuous employment opportunities here. After his transfer, no effort has been taken by other collectors,” he pointed out.

Speaking to TNIE, Periyar Vaigai Irrigation Farmers Association Coordinator S Anvar Balasingam said the women travelling to Kerala for work has been continuing for over 50 years. “They are working for the owners of Tamil Nadu. In Idukki district, over 50,000 acres of cardamom plantations in Udumbansolai, Nedumkandam, Vandiperiyar, Peerumedu and Munnar are owned by the people in Tamil Nadu,” he said.

He further said as the crow flies, Sakulathumettu in Kerala is just 11 kilometres from Devaram of Tamil Nadu, but the people have to take a detour of around 70 kilometres via Cumbum Mettu or Bodi Mettu to due to the lack of road connecting the two places. “Though a foundation stone was laid to lay a road connecting T Mettupatti near Devaram and Sakulathumettu in Kerala by the Department of Public works, Highways and Minor Ports of Tamil Nadu in 1981 during the tenure of the then Chief Minister MG Ramachandran, the work never started. If the road is laid, it will reduce the plight of the women to a great extent. The labourers apart, trade between the two states are also being affected. Fruits and other agricultural products from Theni are being transported to Kerala regularly,” he said.

DYFI Uthamapalayam president P Jegatheeswaran said though there is a lot of potential for converting grapes, bananas and mangoes grown in Theni as value added products by starting wine factories, these women could get jobs in the district itself. “Otherwise, Tamil Nadu government can provide enough buses to Kerala so that the women could travel safely,” he said.

“Both AIADMK and DMK have given many poll promises during the time of assembly and Lok Sabha elections to start the industries and provide road connectivity to Sakkulathu Mettu in Idukki . But it never materialised. “The last four kilometres of the proposed T Mettupatti-Sakulathumettu stretch comes under the jurisdiction of the forest department. They are denying permission for the road, citing threats to animals in the area. Forest department can propose an overpass here without affecting animals’ lives,” he pointed out.

He also said though they staged various protests and petitioned authorities, no action has been taken to put an end to these women’s plight.

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