Heavy fine imposed for not using commercial number plates

Plucking of cardamom in estates in Idukki district in Kerala was paralysed, as more than 10,000 estate workers in Theni district could not go for work on Monday owing to a flash strike by jeep drivers and private operators, protesting action by the Kerala authorities for transporting workers without commercial or tourist number plates.

All private jeep operators transporting workers to estates in Negunkandam and nearby villages stopped their services. Cumbum Mettu Road wore a deserted look as over 500 vehicles were off the road. The operators announced that the strike would continue tomorrow.

They are protesting the alleged “high-handed action” of transport officials in Nedunkandam. (The Kerala Government had opened a regional transport office at Nedunkandam two months ago). A majority of the jeeps transporting workers from Tamil Nadu to Kerala operated with licence plates given to privately owned vehicles. Jeeps were being operated in Kumuli, Munnar, Kattapanai, Vandanmedu and nearby areas. Jeep operators did not face any problems on Kumuli and Bodi Mettu check-posts.

Nedunkandam transport officials alone imposed heavy fine ranging from Rs.6,000 to Rs.8,500 according to their whims and warned jeep operators that the fine would increase to Rs.12,000 from Monday onwards. Such a huge fine was more than our monthly earnings, said Jeep and Van Operators Association President A. Iyappan.

“Normally, each estate worker gets Rs.250 a day and offers Rs.80 for transport expenses. Each van operator will get around Rs.1,100 a day. We have to pay Rs.300 to driver, diesel expenses works out to Rs.400 and other expenses would be around Rs.100. Ultimately, we get Rs.300 a day. Obtaining national permit is not a tough task. But we operate only for six months. With no work in estates, workers will not go to Kerala,” he added.

With cardamom procurement prices hovering around Rs.600 a kg, estate owners will not pay more than Rs. 250 to workers. We cannot expect more from them (workers). This is a seasonal income. How can we invest more on seasonal business,” operators asked.

They also alleged that Nedunkandam transport officials targeted only vehicles bearing Tamil Nadu registration number. Kerala jeeps with private licence boards also transported workers regularly, but were not fined. And they took action against vehicles with Kerala registration numbers, if the owner belonged to Tamil Nadu. They should not show any partiality, they appealed.

Already, estates have been struggling with labour shortage. The jeep operators’ strike will only worsen the situation, said S. Raja Manickam, Manager, Kerala Cardamom Growers Association.

Deepavali festival is considered a peak season for cardamom sale. Delay in plucking will affect arrivals to auction centres, he said.

Roughly 1,500 jeeps and vans were being operated a day transporting 20,000 workers. The operators were pinning hope on Collector K.S. Palanisamy to resolve the issue through talks with his counterpart in Idukki.