Officials say they are making earnest efforts to improve conditions
Papathi, who is in her 50s and living in a ‘labour line’ constructed by authorities in Guernsey here, does not have many demands to make.
Her constant refrain: “Can you tell someone to get our houses repaired?”
Papathi is one of 3,850 permanent women-workers who have been provided with employment and housing by the Tamil Nadu Tea Plantation Corporation (TANTEA), a State government-controlled organisation.
There are 6,100 permanent workers and 2,800 casual workers, mostly dependents of the permanent workers.
Each house in the labour line — so called because of the construction of houses in a row — is about 400 sq. ft. There are cracks on the walls of the houses and the cement concrete-pathway in front of the houses is all broken.
Nonchalantly, Papathi says, “I have been living here nearly for 40 years.”
Papathi is is one of those repatriated from Sri Lanka under the 1964 bilateral agreement, popularly called the Sirimavo-Shastri Pact and named after the then Prime Ministers of Sri Lanka and India — Sirimavo Bandaranaike and Lal Bahadur Shastri.
In October 1964 and January 1974, the governments of India and Sri Lanka signed two agreements to settle the issue of 9.75 lakh stateless persons living in Sri Lanka then.
It was for the purpose of providing livelihood opportunities to persons like Papathi that the TANTEA was established in August 1975.
Two members in each family of repatriates are given permanent employment besides seasonal employment to their dependents.
The repatriate-workers are living in 2,513 houses spread over seven administrative divisions of the Corporation in the Nilgiris district. Of them, the division of Coonoor has 251 houses and the highest number of houses – 454 – is in Pandiar, about 70 km from here.
Not far from Papathi’s house is that of Balakumar, a 34-year-old worker, in the same area. Sometime last year, the families of Balakumar and three others were relocated there as their original houses were damaged a few years ago in a rain. “We are all living in the new houses without power connection,” he says.
Pointing to a girl of about 10 years, he claims that the absence of power supply has forced the girl to discontinue her studies. However, in two respects, the houses of Balakumar and his neighbours are different from others: concrete roofs and attached toilets.
If these are instances of their living conditions, the tale of their working conditions appears to be no less different. Even the permanent workers, who are on daily wages, get paid only for the number of days they work.
Admitting that the housing conditions of the workers should be improved, a senior official says the government is conscious of the plight of the labourers who need to be supported in every possible way.
Chief Minister Jayalalithaa, while reviewing the functioning of the Environment and Forest Department in March, cleared the proposal for providing Rs.4.04 crore towards further contribution to the Corporation’s share capital.
A sum of about Rs.70 lakh has been earmarked for taking up capital works such as residential buildings, improvement of water supply and roads, all of which are aimed at benefiting the workers directly.
During 2011-2012, a sum of Rs.20 lakh was approved under the Hill Area Development Programme (HADP) to improve facilities in the labour quarters towards water supply and sanitation. This year, Rs.40 lakh has been sanctioned under the HADP.
Besides, a few months ago, the Nilgiris district administration sanctioned Rs.50.13 lakh, under the Panchayat Union General Fund, for the provision of amenities to the workers in Cherangode, Nelliyalam and Kotagiri, three divisions of the Corporation.
Increase in incentive
Another recent move of the government is to increase the incentive for plucking every kilogram of tea leaves over and above the minimum quantity of 25 kg.
Against the previous rates of Re.0.50, Re.0.70 and Rs.1.1 for the respective slabs of 26 kg-40 kg; 41 kg-60 kg and 61 kg and above, the present rates are Re.0.50 (for the slab of 26 kg-35 kg); Re.1 (36 kg-40 kg); Rs.2 (41 kg-50 kg) and Rs.3 for (51 kg and above).
As regards the pay, the present rate [effective April 1, 2012] is Rs.145.04 per day that includes Rs.78 towards minimum wages and Rs.67.04 towards dearness allowance, which is subject to quarterly revision. [The last hike of minimum wages was done in June 2008.]
Another official says that though the Corporation had incurred losses last year, it paid 20 per cent bonus and ex-gratia to its employees, as per the direction of the State Government.
For this, it took a loan of Rs.5 crore from the Tamil Nadu Forest Plantation Corporation (TAFCORN), another government body.
On the issue of providing power supply to the Guernsey quarters, the official explains that the building plan approval process in the Nilgiris district, a hilly region, is more elaborate than what is in existence in the plains and steps are being taken to get the approval for the quarters at the earliest.
Once the approval of the local authorities is obtained, it is a matter of time that the power supply connection will be provided.
The TANTEA administration has drafted a proposal for about Rs.96 crore to improve basic amenities at the quarters of the workers.
The proposal, being examined by the government, was prepared on the basis of a comprehensive study and after due consultations with the workers.
A host of welfare measures is being implemented by the TANTEA administration for the workers.
As for placing the permanent workers under the payment system of monthly wages, the government official says the norm in the tea industry is to have wages paid on daily basis.
Besides, the financial viability of the organisation has to be kept in mind before taking any decision in this regard.