Political will manifests best when a government takes decisions unpalatable to its core support base. The Pinarayi Vijayan government, which completes two years this week, has shown that it has the will to act on very sensitive issues with two key decisions taken these past few weeks: banning the much-reviled practice of loaders to charge fees without doing any work, known in rather unpopular parlance as ‘nokkukooli’ (gawking fees), and freeing tourist destinations from hartals. Not that the two decisions are going to be enforced or implemented in toto, but the intent behind them is very clear: to make Kerala a place friendly to build a house, shift home, set up a small production unit or trade in some ware or the other for a living, and ensure that tourism, an industry that brings in huge revenue to the State and the national exchequer, does not wilt under pressures of local political imperatives.
Instances when high-profile individuals are put through such experiences help bring about these decisions, that is, if the political climate also justifies them. Actor Sudheer Karamana was one of them. When loaders demanded ₹25,000 from him for unloading his household articles about a month ago, he had no option but to oblige. However, he made an issue of it, forcing trade union leaders to intervene and make the workers return the sum to the actor. That he has friends and admirers in the political establishment helped. “Nokkukooli has been a major cause of trouble for the common people. You never know when it hits you, and in what circumstances. Even for a marriage function, you need to transport so much goods. And then you have to shell out money for ‘nokkukooli’. It could be for house construction, as in my case. The State government’s decision to end the practice needs to be lauded,” he told The Hindu .
According to him, the government has made its intent clear by laying down stringent action against those who insist on ‘nokkukooli’ even after the ban. “I had an experience of how things would be after May 1, when I faced this issue last month. The leaders of various unions intervened quickly and positively to ensure that the issue was resolved.
This, indeed, is a great step, a much-needed change,” he said. Concurs Justin James, a Kozhikode city resident, who recalls that his biggest headache while thinking of shifting from a rented house to a better location was the ‘nokkukooli’. “We had actually no freedom to select our own labourers and opt for cheaper service. We were actually doing the whole shifting process as if we were taking away some other’s property,” he said.
That, perhaps, sums up what Keralites have lived with for several decades now. Shifting a house was like planning a theft for some of the temporarily settled urban residents in the State till April 30. When the ‘nokkukooli’ was in force, they had to pack and move in a discreet manner, always worried about the possibility of the loaders making their dramatic entry at any time, interrupting the whole operation. To evade their eyes, many have had to shift heir houses during night and holidays.
Expressing relief over the new law, some of the Kozhikode city residents said they had been tolerating the practice for fear of retaliation from trade union leaders and labourers. R. Unni, an autorickshaw driver in the city, said he had come across several incidents in which the lower middle-class families solely depended on the services of local labourers and autorickshaw drivers to move household articles from one location to another in a secretive manner.
“For drivers like me, it was a risky job and we dared to do it only because of the additional income we could earn. Only those with political protection were able to challenge the practice,” he recalled.
Not without reasons
Though much maligned, the practice of loaders demanding huge sums for work partially done or not done should be seen against the backdrop of the manner in which wealth accumulation has taken place in the State. The Gulf boom and the impressive growth of the cash crop economy were key to this process witnessed over three decades beginning early 1970s. This process of wealth accumulation had its flip side in the emergence of sharp income disparities, the wage labour segment of the population suffering the worst. While the organised sections clamoured for and won better wages, the daily wage labourers had no option but to force the upwardly mobile and the neo-rich cough up higher sums for the services rendered. But the process did not stop there. It soon acquired dimensions of extortion and nobody was spared. That is when the popular sentiment turned decisively against the loaders.
The first E.K. Nayanar government of 1980-81 had to pay a political price for this phenomenon, with the then Antony group of the Congress and the Kerala Congress faction led by K.M. Mani, using it as one of the key issues to rethink their tie-up with the Left. It has ever since been a sore thumb for the Left, though unions cutting across political affiliations have been indulging in it, rendering their leaderships vulnerable to public outrage. The Pinarayi Vijayan government’s decision to ban the practice might perhaps mean that those are things of the past now. At least that is what Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan sought to convey when addressing a rally held at Pathanamthitta a week ago as part of the CITU State general council following the ‘nokkukooli’ ban. He said categorically that if any instance of workers demanding ‘gawking’ fees came up, the law would take its own course. The State had earned a bad name in the name of the `nokkukooli’ and the ‘sons of the soil’ postures by local vested interests whenever someone wanted to make an investment. “Now, both the practices have been banned and nobody would be permitted to defame the State in the name of `nokkukooli’, he had said.
After the ban
How is the government decision to ban ‘nokkukooli’ playing out? The reluctance of the public to openly place complaints against loaders in their localities was earlier pointed out to be one of the main impediments in initiating legal action against the erring workers who resort to extortion. Now, the Labour Department has introduced a toll-free number — 155214 — for the public to register complaints. A complainant can use the facility without revealing his/her identity. According to Labour Commissioner A. Alexander, the department has already taken the lead to create public awareness of the need to register complaints. On approaching the designated officer, the department would give them the permission to engage any worker of their choice to do loading and unloading. The order would give them the freedom to act without fear. After the ban, the department had not received any major complaint, but cleared one or two that reached before the officials, Mr. Alexander says.
Concurring with him, Labour Department officials in Kozhikode said no case of ‘nokkukooli’ had been reported in the district since the announcement of the ban. District Labour Officer (Enforcement) Babu Kanappally said efforts were also on to make people aware of the new rule and instantly report the violations to the department for action. “In the weeks to come, we will hold a meeting of trade union leaders in the district to explain to them the provisions of the new order and the details of penal action in case any such incident is reported,” said Mr. Babu. He also added that a separate meeting of all residents’ associations would be convened to request their support for the new rule.
Officials of the District Labour Office in Alappuzha also said they had not received any complaint regarding ‘nokkukooli’ since the government issued an order abolishing the practice and declaring it unlawful from May 1. Earlier, many works, including refurbishment of the National Highway 66, construction of the Alappuzha bypass and roadworks, had got stalled in the district on various occasions after labourers attached to registered trade unions demanded ‘nokkukooli’ from the contractors. Demanding ‘nokkukooli’ for loading and unloading of domestic goods was also rampant in the district. However, all major trade unions in the district have now come out in support of the abolition of ‘nokkukooli’. The trade unions have, simultaneously, also urged the government to ensure jobs to workers while implementing mechanisation in work places.
Unions support decision
In Kasaragod, local trade union representatives adopted a unanimous resolution at a meeting convened by District Collector K. Jeevanbabu to put an end to the unhealthy practice. In Palakkad too, trade unions have come out in support of the government decision, though a dispute over whether tipper trucks attached with large tilt trays upending themselves and offloading tonnes of materials come under the ‘nokkukooli’ ban is yet to be resolved. “It is a party programme and the LDF government decision. It will be implemented without any hiccup,” said V.N. Vasavan, member CITU national executive committee and Kottayam district secretary of the CPI(M). The decision has gone to the lower rungs of the CITU and a series of meetings are on to create awareness among the members on the issue of nokkukooli”, he said. According to him, so far no complaints have been received.. “If we get a complaint we will definitely look into it and ask the erring members to return the amount, he said.
District labour officer (enforcement) P. Reghunath said the department had not received any complaint after May 1. “The assistant labour officers have been asked to be strict in handling any breach of the order, he said. In general, ‘nokkukooli’ has been on the decline in the district, though certain sectors like construction still suffered from it. According to Mr. Raghunath, the decision to ban ‘nokkukooli’ would benefit householders most as they will have freedom to choose the workers. Still, they must be ready to give them the fees at the rates fixed by the authorities. Unions will not be able to dictate terms anymore, he said. K.L. Satheesh Kumar, deputy labour commissioner, said the most important aspect would be to create awareness among the public and the workers.
(With inputs from S.R. Praveen, N.J. Nair (Thiruvananthapuram), Radhakrishnan Kuttoor (Pathanamthitta), George Jacob (Kottayam), Sam Paul (Alappuzha), K.A. Shaji (Palakkad), Mithosh Joseph (Kozhikode), C.S. Narayanan Kutty (Kasaragod).