Giji K. Raman
With changes in the work environment and recurrent crises in the cash crop economy driving away workers, tea, pepper and cardamom plantations in Idukki district are experiencing a
severe shortage of labour.
KATTAPPANA: A crisis is slowly spreading in the entire Idukki district after gripping the once-famous tea sector of Peerumade, where it started nearly a decade ago.
The farm sector of the district is experiencing a severe shortage of skilled and unskilled labourers. Those affected are the estates and unorganised farmers who depend on seasonal labourers, especially for sowing and harvesting cash crops.
When the tea estates faced a crisis, the traditional labourers, mostly from Tamil Nadu, either returned to their villages or migrated to neighbouring districts.
“If women labourers are mainly employed for plucking tea leaves and harvesting cardamom, men workers are employed for pepper harvest and on coffee estates. When the crisis engulfed the tea estates, it affected the cardamom and coffee plantations too,” says P. Palaniswamy, manager of a cardamom estate at Vandanmedu.
The reasons being attributed for the severe shortage are the rise in the cost of living in the State compared to that in Tamil Nadu and the inability of estate managements and farmers to pay high wages, as the prices of cash crops have fallen. Production has fallen because of climatic changes and low soil fertility in the High Ranges.
The workers who went back claim that Tamil Nadu offers better job opportunities than those a few years ago. The wage rates in their home State have become attractive now.
When the farm sector in Idukki flourished, there was no shortage of workers, as migrant labourers from neighbouring districts preferred to settle down and temporary labourers arrived during the harvest season. Now, the labour quarters on the tea estates and in cardamom and coffee plantations are lying vacant.
“Those who leave never prefer to return because the living conditions on most estates are pathetic,” says S. Sivadasan, trade union leader in Peerumade. “The harvesting of cardamom and tea-plucking needs some kind of experience and expertise as the ripe cardamom has to be selected and harvested at a great speed and tea plucking need expert hand movement.”
The estates had a steady supply of labour in the past because accommodation was given in estate lanes, as the living quarters are called, on the condition that at least one member of a family is employed. This used to result in work being passed from generation to generation. This system received the first shock when a crisis hit the tea sector, the workers of which enjoyed a better status.
Now, in the entire area of closed or partially functioning tea estates, hundreds of lanes are in disrepair and vacant. It is estimated that thousands of families have shifted from Peerumade.
Labourers from Tamil Nadu who used to come for work during the harvest season did not turn up last year.
The situation could be graver during pepper- and coffee-harvesting time this year, as even the labourers belonging to Idukki have migrated to neighbouring districts. Most of them secure employment in the construction sector where a better wage rate prevails.
There seems to be a general aversion nowadays among workers towards farm labour. Pepper and coffee cultivators are not in a position to employ labourers at high wages. A labourer said that Rs.125 or Rs.150 a day is low if the labour involved and the cost of living are taken into account.
According to data available with various estates, there is nearly a 30 per cent to 40 per cent shortage of labour during the harvesting season. And this does not take into account the situation in the tea sector.
Last year, some women self-help group members were engaged to harvest pepper, which required climbing up ladders, hitherto considered a job for men. However, pepper on thousands of acres of land on the border with Tamil Nadu, where the season starts late, could not be harvested owing to labour shortage and untimely rain.
Currently, there is competition between estates for workers when the harvesting season approaches and those who offer higher wages get the seasonal labourers, said the manager of a cardamom estate. Earlier, the labourers used to compete among themselves to get into the rolls of companies.
It is not just a question of getting someone, but of employing experienced hands, says V. Prasanth, former manager of a tea estate, which has been remaining closed for nearly a decade now. “Even if the closed tea estates are reopened, where will one find the expert women labourers who have already left the field?”
High minimum wage
When the National Rural Employment Guarantee Programme (NREGP) was implemented, many workers choose it, further reducing their number in the farm sector. It also raised the minimum wage for employing them in the unorganised farm sector.
It is said that a farmer, who is faced with low production and low price for pepper, cannot employ a worker who demands over Rs.150 a day? With low production, it is time-consuming to harvest pepper and the yield will be less.
The quantity of coffee is also considerably less this season though its price is not as low as compared to pepper.
Sources in a tea company, which has adopted mechanised tea-plucking in some parts of its estates, said that mechanisation could be an answer to the severe shortage of labourers.
However, it requires complete replanting as the machinery needs plane area for movement and an equal distance between the plants. Considering the high cost involved, it will not be possible for the crisis-hit tea companies to go for mechanised tea-plucking.
A silver lining in the cash crop sector of Idukki is the anticipated high level of export revenue from tea and cardamom owing to a fall in their production in Kenya and Guatemala, respectively. But the question that begs an answer is how the tea and cardamom sector can cope with the severe shortage in skilled and semiskilled labourers. Attracting traditional workers to the farm sector is not easy given the changed work environment.
Idukki, which has no industrial activity to support its economy, is keeping its fingers crossed.